Thacker Pass Sacred Sites Are Already Being Damaged

Thacker Pass Sacred Sites Are Already Being Damaged

Tribal Chairman: “It’s Our Responsibility to Protect Sacred Sites”

RENO, NV — The Thacker Pass Lithium Mine in northern Nevada is headed back to Federal Court on January 5th as the lawsuits against the project near completion, but project opponents are raising the alarm that Lithium Nevada Corporation has already begun work on the proposed mine.

Lithium Nevada’s workers at Thacker Pass have begun digging test pits, bore holes, dumping gravel, building fencing, and installing security cameras where Native Americans often conduct ceremonies. Lithium Nevada also conducted “bulk sampling” earlier this year, and may be planning to dig dozens of new test pits across Thacker Pass. They’re claiming this work is legal under previous permits issued over a decade ago. But Tribes and mine opponents, including the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Summit Lake Paiute Tribe, disagree.

They point to language in the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine that says “authorization of [the mine] will terminate the [earlier permits].” The Federal permit for Thacker Pass was approved on January 15th, 2021.

Will Falk, attorney for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, explains: “Lithium Nevada told the government and the American public that it would terminate the older permits upon BLM’s approval of the Thacker Pass Project. Now they are going back on their word, it appears they are lying to get a headstart on building the Thacker Pass mine, and the BLM is allowing them to get away with it.”

Thacker Pass, known as Peehee Mu’huh in Paiute, is a sacred site to regional tribes whose ancestors lived in the area for thousands of years, and were massacred there on at least two occasions.

Michon Eben, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer at Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, says the site is incredibly important to Native American history. “Peehee Mu’huh is a sacred place where our ancestors lived and died. We still go there to pray, gather food and medicine, hunt, and teach our youth about the history of our people.” Eben and the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony are currently hosting an exhibit on the impacts of mining on Native people of Nevada.

Tribal members have stated in court filings that, because of the history of battles and massacres on the site, Thacker Pass is as significant to their culture as a site like Pearl Harbor is to American history. Arlan Melendez, Chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, understands the importance of battle and massacre sites as both a Native American and as a U.S. Marine Corps veteran.

“As tribal leaders, it’s our responsibility to protect and honor our sacred places,” says Melendez. “Throughout US history, tribes have always been set up to lose in the US legal system against BLM. This Lithium Mine stands in the way of our roots and it’s violating the religious freedoms of our elders, our people.”

Falk, the Tribal attorney, says that Lithium Nevada’s construction activities at Thacker Pass are also violating tribal consultation rights.

“The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Summit Lake Paiute Tribe are still engaged in consultation with the BLM about the September 12, 1865 massacre site, a site that will be completely destroyed by Lithium Nevada’s mine if this project is built,” Falk says. “It’s hard to believe a government agency is consulting in good faith when they are already allowing the site to be harmed.”

Shelley Harjo, a tribal member from the Fort McDermitt Shoshone Paiute Tribe and an employee of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, has called the planned destruction of Thacker Pass “the biggest desecration and rape of a known Native American massacre site in our area.”

The upcoming January 5th hearing in Reno’s Federal Courthouse will be the final oral argument in the ongoing lawsuits against the Thacker Pass mine. Mine opponents are planning a march and rally outside. Plaintiffs, including the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, Burns Paiute Tribe, four environmental organizations, and local rancher Edward Bartell, have alleged numerous violations of the law, and Judge Miranda Du is expected to issue her opinion in the case within days or weeks of the January 5th hearing.

“No matter what happens in court on January 5th, Thacker Pass is being destroyed right now and that threat will be ongoing,” says Max Wilbert, co-founder of Protect Thacker Pass. “We have to stop that.”

Lithium Nevada claims that its lithium mine will be essential to producing batteries for combating global warming, and the Biden administration has previously indicated some support for Thacker Pass. Opponents of the project have called this “greenwashing,” arguing that the project would harm important wildlife habitat and create significant pollution. They say that electric cars are still harmful to the planet.

Timeline

January 15, 2021 — Due to “fast-tracked” permitting under the Trump Administration, the Bureau of Land Management releases a Record of Decision approving the Thacker Pass mine less than a year after beginning the Environmental Impact Statement process. On the same day, Max Wilbert and Will Falk established the Protect Thacker Pass camp.

February 11, 2021 — Local rancher Edward Bartell files a lawsuit (Case No. 3:21-cv-00080-MMD-CLB) in U.S. District Court alleging the proposed mine violates the Endangered Species Act by harming Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, and would cause irreparable harm to springs, wet meadows, and water tables.

February 26, 2021 — Four environmental organizations (Basin and Range Watch, Great Basin Resource Watch, Wildlands Defense, and Western Watersheds Project) file another lawsuit (Case No. 3:21-cv-00103-MMD-CLB) in U.S. District Court, alleging that BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act, Federal Land Policy Management Act, and other laws in permitting the Thacker Pass mine.

June 24, 2021 — The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the oldest and largest national organization of American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments, calls on the Department of the Interior to rescind the permits for the Thacker Pass project.

Spring and Summer 2021 — Rallies, protests, and prayer runs take place in Orovada, Winnemucca, Reno, Carson City, and at Thacker Pass. More than 100 mine opponents gather at Thacker Pass to commemorate the 156-year anniversary of a September 12, 1865 massacre of at least 31 Northern Paiute men, women, and children committed by the 1st Nevada Cavalry. Thousands of people visit the site.

July 19, 2021 — The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu (People of Red Mountain) files a successful motion to intervene in Federal District Court (Case No. 3:21-cv-00080-MMD-CLB) alleging that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) violated the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) in permitting the planned lithium mine.

August 2, 2021 — Burns Paiute Tribe files a motion to intervene on the side of tribal plaintiffs (Case No. 3:21-cv-00080-MMD-CLB).

September 15, 2021 — Bureau of Land Management accuses Will Falk and Max Wilbert of trespass for providing bathrooms to native elders at Thacker Pass, fining them $49,890.13.

October 8, 2021 — Eighteen native elders from three regional tribes request a BLM permit for their ceremonial camp. The BLM does not respond.

November 29, 2021 — The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony files an amended complaint in federal court alleging major previously unknown violations of the law. In January, Judge Miranda Du rejects the amended complaint because she wants to make a final decision on the case within a few months (note that the case has now continued for another calendar year).

February 11th, 2022 — Winnemucca Indian Colony files a motion to intervene in the lawsuit on the side of plaintiffs, claiming that BLM’s contention that they consulted with the Tribe is completely false. Judge Du rejects this motion shortly afterwards with the same reasoning used above.

April 4th, 2022 — Reno-Sparks Indian Colony files a Motion for Discovery Sanctions alleging that the BLM has been disobeying court orders and making “reckless, false statements” in a deliberate attempt to abuse the justice system and limit judicial oversight. Judge Du agrees with RSIC, but rejects the motion on a technicality.

August 2022 — BLM “discovers” five new historic sites at Thacker Pass and for the first time acknowledges the September 12, 1865 massacre took place, but continues to reject tribal expertise.

September 2022 — Lithium Nevada Corporation begins digging up portions of Thacker Pass for “bulk sampling” despite consultation still being ongoing between the Bureau of Land Management and regional tribes over cultural sites.

October 2022 — Dozens of mining activists from four continents visit Thacker Pass as part of the Western Mining Action Network biennial conference.

Contact:
Will Falk, Attorney for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Summit Lake Paiute Tribe
Bethany Sam, Reno-Sparks Indian Colony Media Relations
Max Wilbert, Protect Thacker Pass

First Voices Radio: “Protect Thacker Pass” with Author, Attorney, and Activist Will Falk

First Voices Radio: “Protect Thacker Pass” with Author, Attorney, and Activist Will Falk

Editor’s note: Today’s post is an interview with Will Falk discussing his work on the Protect Thacker Pass campaign with Tiokasin Ghosthorse (Lakota), host of First Voices Radio. Falk co-founded Protect Thacker Pass with Max Wilbert and is representing the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony in a Federal court case alleging violations of tribal consultation laws.


By First Voices Radio

Tiokasin’s guest is Will Falk, who gives an update on Thacker Pass in northern Nevada. In January 2021, Will and Max Wilbert launched an occupation of a proposed lithium mine at Thacker Pass. Will is a writer, lawyer, and environmental activist. He believes the ongoing destruction of the natural world is the most pressing issue confronting us today.

Activism has taken Will to the Unist’ot’en Camp — an Indigenous cultural center and pipeline blockade on unceded Wet’suwet’en territory in so-called British Columbia, Canada, to a construction blockade on Mauna Kea in Hawai’i, and to endangered pinyon-juniper forests in the Great Basin.

Will’s first book, “How Dams Fall: Stories the Colorado River Told Me” was published in August, 2019 by Homebound Publications.

For more information, visit https://www.protectthackerpass.org/. Look for Will’s poetry on his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/willfalk35. For more information about Will, visit https://willfalk.org/

With Guest Will Falk

Production Credits: Tiokasin Ghosthorse (Lakota), Host and Executive Producer; Liz Hill (Red Lake Ojibwe), Producer; Malcolm Burn, Studio Engineer, Radio Kingston, WKNY 1490 AM and 107.9 FM, Kingston, NY; Tiokasin Ghosthorse, Audio Editor

Music Selections:

1. Song Title: Tahi Roots Mix (First Voices Radio Theme Song); Artist: Moana and the Moa Hunters; Album: Tahi (1993); Label: Southside Records (Australia and New Zealand) (00:00:22)

2. Song Title: Mother Earth; Artist: Karliene; Single: Mother Earth (2019); Label: N/A (Available on YouTube) (00:24:40)

3. Song Title: Single Pride of Man; Artist: Quicksilver Messenger Service; Album: Quicksilver Messenger Service (1968); Label: Capitol Records (00:28:45)

4. Song Title: Revolution; Artist: SOJA; Album: Peace in Time of War (2002); Label: DMV Records (00:32:34)

5. Song Title: Bo Bo’s Groove; Artist: Tom Principato Band; Album: Raising the Roof (2008); Label: Powerhouse Records (00:37:30)

6. Song Title: Mother Earth; Artist: SOJA; Album: Peace in Time of War (2002); Label: DMV Records (00:37:30)

7. Song Title: Through the Eyes of Love; Artist: Walter Trout and the Radicals; Album: Notodden Blues Festival – The Best of People and Blues – Nbf, Vol. 3 (2004); Label: Bluestown Records (00:46:45)

8. Song Title: American Dream; Artist: J.S. Ondara; Album: Tales of America (The Second Coming) (2019); Label: Verve Forecast / Universal Music Canada (00:55:00)


AKANTU INSTITUTE: Visit Akantu Institute, an institute that Tiokasin founded with a mission of contextualizing original wisdom for troubled times. Go to https://akantuinstitute.org/ to find out more and consider joining his Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/Ghosthorse.

Photo by Max Wilbert: Will Falk surveys native Pinyon-Juniper forests and BLM clearcuts near Ely, Nevada. To learn more, see https://pinyonjuniperforests.org.

Legal update and hearing this week / Press Conference on Thacker Pass Lawsuits [Dispatches from Thacker Pass]

Legal update and hearing this week / Press Conference on Thacker Pass Lawsuits [Dispatches from Thacker Pass]

On Friday, August 27th at 2pm Pacific, attorneys for Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Atsa Koodakuh wyh Nuwu (People of Red Mountain) will hold a virtual press conference updating supporters and media members on the lawsuits against the Bureau of Land Management and Lithium Nevada Corporation.

Earlier that morning, there will be a hearing in Federal District Court. Judge Miranda Du will hear arguments from Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Atsa Koodakuh wyh Nuwu (People of Red Mountain) on their motion for a preliminary injunction. If Judge Du grants the injunction, she is recognizing that these plaintiffs have a good chance of succeeding in their lawsuit which argues that the Bureau of Land Management violated federal law when they permitted the Thacker Pass lithium mine by not properly consulting with tribes. The full lawsuit will be heard later in 2021 or early 2022.

Friday’s hearing will be open to the public via video conference, but not in-person. We encourage anyone who is interested to attend. **But legal hearings can be hard to understand if you are not a lawyer, which is why we are planning to hold this virtual press conference that afternoon to explain what is happening in the case.**

Questions will be accepted and members of the press are invited to join.

The press conference will be live streaming on the Protect Thacker Pass Facebook page.


Legal update and hearing this week

Media coverage regarding the July 21st Thacker Pass mine-related injunction hearing seems to misunderstand the current status and implications of the ongoing legal battles over Thacker Pass, or “Peehee Mu’huh.”

Contrary to these media misrepresentations, Thacker Pass’ fate has not yet been decided – far from it. Lithium Nevada still has formidable legal obstacles to overcome – including the recent addition of Paiute-Shoshone plaintiffs bearing new, stronger arguments against the excavation of cultural sites at Thacker Pass.

It’s true that on July 23rd, Nevada Federal District Court Judge Miranda Du refused to grant an injunction that would have prohibited, on environmental grounds, the archaeological excavation of cultural sites at Thacker Pass. The judge rejected claims that the preliminary archaeological digging (of numerous hand-dug holes and seven 40-meter trenches) would cause irreparable environmental harm to the area.

However, some of the recent media coverage fails to clarify two crucial points. First, the July 23rd decision pertains only to the request for a preliminary injunction, rather than to the underlying legal case itself. Second, and even more importantly, on July 19th new plaintiffs moved to intervene in the legal case.

What is a Preliminary Injunction?

A preliminary injunction is a court order that preserves the status quo between relevant parties while the judge makes larger decisions about the underlying case. Since American law assumes that money can repair all harm, the legal system often allows companies to continue their projects even during an active lawsuit. If the judge rules that the company (or the BLM) violated the law, these defendants can compensate the harmed party with money. However, many judges recognize that money is not always an adequate reparation for harm to the environment or to cultural resources. Therefore, in such cases, judges often entertain a preliminary injunction motion.

Why did Judge Du reject the first preliminary injunction request?

In considering the environmental groups’ motion for a preliminary injunction, Judge Du acknowledged the possibility that the initial, archaeological excavations mentioned above could cause irreparable environmental harm. Although the judge ultimately decided that the smaller archaeological excavations would not cause that level of disturbance, she has not yet ruled on the environmental threat posed by the entire project.

What comes next for the environmental lawsuit?

The underlying legal case (filed back in February by Western Watersheds Project, Wildlands Defense, Great Basin Resource Watch, and Basin and Range Watch), challenges the Bureau of Land Management’s Record of Decision, which permitted the corporation’s proposed lithium mine on public land. If the judge rules in favor of the plaintiffs and against the BLM, the Record of Decision will be suspended or vacated entirely. The judge’s final decision on that case is slated for January 2022 and will assess and respond to the environmental harm of the entire proposed mining project, which includes chemical processing facilities and a 400-foot deep open pit that would destroy miles of surface area in Thacker Pass.

Lithium Nevada investors are foolish to overlook the fact that the primary legal decision on the Thacker Pass project still remains to be made. Even more significantly, Judge Du recently accepted the addition of local tribal groups to the case. The judge acknowledged that these new plaintiffs make stronger arguments – on cultural grounds – against both the archaeological digging and the entire project.

Why and how are Native Tribes and organizations getting involved?

The night before the July 21st hearing, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and the People of Red Mountain (a committee of land protectors from the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone reservation) made a formal motion to intervene in the case. Conceding that the lawsuit filed by Western Watersheds, etc., did not adequately represent tribal concerns, Judge Du admitted these two groups as plaintiffs to the case. The Burns Paiute Tribe, making similar arguments, has since joined the case as well. In July 2021, the judge decided to consolidate the lawsuits by adding these three indigenous groups’ lawsuit, as well as the lawsuit filed by local rancher Edward Bartell, to the original case filed by the environmental groups.

On July 27th, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and the People of Red Mountain moved for their own preliminary injunction, on the grounds that digging up cultural sites — including burial sites and a massacre site — would do irreparable spiritual and cultural harm to them as indigenous people whose ancestors lived in and around Peehee Mu’huh.

The indigenous groups also argue that the BLM failed to adequately consult with all relevant tribes before issuing the Record of Decision.

What will happen if Judge Du grants the Preliminary Injunction request?

If the judge supports the tribes by granting this preliminary injunction after the hearing scheduled for August 27th, the corporation and the contracted archaeological group cannot disturb Thacker Pass until the end of January at the earliest. Receiving this injunction would mean that if the BLM issues an Archaeological Resources Protection Action (ARPA) permit to Far Western Anthropological Group, allowing archaeologists to begin trenching and digging at Thacker Pass, the BLM would be doing so illegally. Granting the preliminary injunction on August 27th would likely protect Thacker Pass until at least spring of 2022, since Lithium Nevada has stated they would have to wait for winter snows to melt before digging.

What if Judge Du refuses to grant the injunction?

Even if the judge refuses to grant the injunction in August 2021, both the BLM and Lithium Nevada still face many legal hurdles. The BLM must contend with a separate lawsuit filed by local rancher Ed Bartell and not yet heard in court. This lawsuit raises environmental concerns, including threats of further depletion of the already over-allocated aquifer and harm to Lahontan cutthroat trout, a Federally-listed threatened species. Bartell and another local rancher have also challenged water rights transfers which the corporation needs for the mine.

When will the preliminary injunctions be over, and the full lawsuit be heard?

Judge Du has stated that she intends to decide on this case by early 2022.

If the judge rules in favor of the tribes, the BLM will have to restart the consultation process. This process would need to include any tribes that wish to be included, and up to ten tribes in the region have demonstrable cultural ties to the Thacker Pass. The consultation process could easily take 1-2 years, during which time local, national, and international opposition may continue to build.

If the Judge rules in favor of Bartell and/or the environmental groups, the NEPA process may need to be revisited, which could similarly take years.

Meanwhile, Lithium Nevada also still needs air and water permits from the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, Eagle Take permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the ARPA permit from the BLM before construction can begin. The corporation also still needs the BLM to set the mining reclamation bond amount.

Conclusion

Contrary to statements made by Lithium Nevada and recent media coverage, this nefarious and ill-conceived lithium mining project still remains rather far from a reality. The fate of Peehee Mu’huh truly does still hang in the balance, and if any of the current plaintiffs win their cases, this mine could take many years to properly permit. It may never happen. It is essential that all people stand up against the destruction of the planet, poisoning of water, rampant colonialism, harm to local communities, and greenwashing represented by lithium mining projects like this.


For more on the Protect Thacker Pass campaign

#ProtectThackerPass #NativeLivesMatter #NativeLandsMatter

Sacrifice Deserts for “Green” Energy?

Sacrifice Deserts for “Green” Energy?

Editor’s note: Contrary to what mainstream environmental organizations assert, so-called “renewable” energy is NOT a solution to the ecological crisis we are facing. It would require a tremendous amount of energy to mine materials; transport and transform them through industrial processes like smelting; turn them into solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, vehicles, infrastructure, and industrial machinery plus installation and maintenance. This is all done using the same systems of power which is currently used for conventional fossil fuels. The resulting emissions from these process will only add to the business as usual emissions. While the wind and sun may be “renewable,” the turbines, solar panels, the raw materials that go into making them, and the lands and oceans they impact certainly are not. They require tons of carbon emissions to produce so they are not carbon free and not green. Calling them “green” is greenwashing.

The proposed mass adoption of “renewable” energy on a hitherto undreamed of scale has made the issue of energy (power) density extremely important . In its simplest terms, power density can be understood as: ‘how big does my power station have to be, in order to generate the power I want?’ The most useful metric is the land (or sea) area that will be used up. Here, we encounter the most easily understood, and the most insoluble of “renewable” energy’s problems. Compared to fossil fuel, it’s power density is very very low. Thus, they require larger areas of land to produce. This land is someone’s home, someone’s sacred site, someone’s source of food, water and air. We just don’t hear about them, because they are the wild beings, the nonhumans treated as disposables by civilization. The humans that inhabit the land are indigenous peoples who are yet to be fully assimilated into the industrial culture. Here, we can see colonialism and extractive economics come together.

The following article describes the plans for different “renewable” energy plants in California and Nevada. The article also demonstrates how the plans for big “renewables” actively reinforce the existing structures of power, with the energy companies lobbying to disincentivize decentralized and community-controlled rooftop solars in favor of big projects that are destroying the neighbors.


By Joshua Frank/Counterpunch

There is a lot of hot air blowing around the West these days, blustery claims that geothermal, wind, massive solar installations, nuclear power, along with a smattering of hydroelectric dams, will help the country achieve a much-needed reduction in climate-altering emissions. Certainly, there is money to be made off of this energy transition, and on paper, a few do appear to be far less damaging than coal-fired power plants and natural gas operations.

That’s if, of course, you ignore the toll these energy ventures have on the lands and people they exploit. Right now, not far from where I live in Southern California, solar companies are gobbling up public and private lands for future solar and wind projects.

Across the border in Nevada, desert is under threat of being developed in the name of fighting climate change. In the rich and biodiverse Dixie Valley, located in the middle of sacred Shoshone and Paiute lands, a massive geothermal project called the Dixie Meadows Geothermal Development Project faced a fierce legal challenge this past year. Geothermal, like hydroelectric dams, is often cited as a renewable energy source, since the technology harnesses heat from the earth to produce electricity, which in theory (as long as it doesn’t stop raining, surprise!), is endless.

Even so, large geothermal plants consume a lot of land and spit out a lot of water. The Dixie Meadows project, which was proposed in Nevada, was one such “green” energy plan that, if built, would suck up over 40,000 thousand acre-feet of water every single year, the result of which would be devasting. Dixie’s delicate wetlands habitat, unique to this stretch of the Great Basin, is home to the imperiled black-freckled Dixie Valley toad, and even a slight alteration of surface water conditions could spell extinction for this rare little toad. Birds too use Dixie’s natural spring water as migratory stopovers. Dixie Meadows is a literal oasis in the desert and has been for tens of thousands of years.

“The United States has repeatedly promised to honor and protect indigenous sacred sites, but then the BLM approved a major construction project nearly on top of our most sacred hot springs. It just feels like more empty words,” said Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribal Chairwoman Cathi Tuni following the announcement of the Dixie Meadows project. “This location has long been recognized as being of vital significance to the Tribe. There are geothermal plants elsewhere in Dixie Valley and the Great Basin that we have not opposed, but construction of this plant would build industrial power plants right next to a sacred place of healing and reflection, and risks damaging the water in the springs forever. We have a duty to protect the hot springs and its surroundings, and we will do so.”

On December 16, 2021, The Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe and the Center of Biological Diversity (Center) sued the BLM over its approval of the Dixie Meadows geothermal project, and in early August were successful in stopping it from moving forward.

“I’m thrilled that yet again the bulldozers are grinding to a halt as a result of our legal actions,” said Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director at the Center. “Nearly every scientist who has evaluated this project agrees that it puts the Dixie Valley toad in the crosshairs of extinction. This agreement gives the toad a fighting shot.”

***

About 270 miles south of Dixie Meadows, another “green” energy plan is in the works near the remote Searchlight, Nevada. The Kulning Wind Project, proposed by Eolus Vind AB, a Swedish power developer, is not unlike other wind projects that were halted in 2017 and 2018 after an outcry from local Tribes and conservationists. Kulning, like the prospects that were shot down, is massive and would include 68 wind turbines spanning 9,300 acres of federal lands on the site of the proposed Avi Kwa Ame (Ah-VEE kwa-meh) National Monument. Like Dixie Meadows, Kulning would greatly impact local wildlife.

“[The] development would likely undermine the use of the region by bighorn sheep and would introduce an unnecessary wildfire risk, threatening Wee Thump and South McCullough wildernesses, among many other concerns,” says Paul Selberg, director of Nevada Conservation League. “Decisions on where to develop renewable energy must be evaluated critically and placed in areas that are appropriate.”

The real question is; are expansive energy projects, be they fossil fuels or “green”, ever really “appropriate”? Indigenous communities and conservationists are wary.

The land outside Searchlight where these huge twirling wings are to be erected is considered a sacred “place of creation” to 12 local tribes, including the Havasupai, Hualapai, Kumeyaay, Maricopa, Mojave, Pai Pai, Quechan, and Yavapai. Opponents of the development, led by a broad coalition of tribes, point out that this stretch of the Mojave is some of the most pristine, in-tact wilderness in the Southwest.

Joshua trees (known as sovarampi to the Southern Paiute) in this area, which make up the largest Joshua forest in Nevada, will be destroyed if the project moves forward. These distinctive, twisted trees are already facing a bleak future in the West. Mojave’s high desert is becoming even hotter and drier than normal, dropping nearly 2 inches from its average of just over 4.5 inches of annual rainfall just a decade ago. The result: younger Joshua trees, which grow at a snail’s pace of 3 inches per year, are perishing before they reach a foot in height. Their vanishing is an indicator that these peculiar trees will not be replenished once they grow old and die, and they are dying at a startling rate.

While it has not received as much attention as Bears Ears or Gold Butte, Avi Kwa Ame National Monument is equally important as an ecological and cultural site, which would span 450,000 acres, protecting the delicate landscape from energy developers (to support the proposed monument, you can sign a petition here).

At the center of this onslaught of development is California’s quest to end the use of fossil fuels. Most of the energy in the state, one of the largest energy consumers in the country, is generated from utility-scale wind and solar, which, as of 2016, has required over 400,000 square kilometers of land to produce. This development, because it is billed as “green” energy, has received little scrutiny from the broader environmental movement. As a result, studies on the effects on biodiversity and threatened species, like the Desert Tortoise, are virtually non-existent.

***

In Northern Nevada, a similar fight is raging over Thacker Pass, where a proposed mine would produce upwards of 80,000 tons of lithium per year, a mineral that is crucial for most electric car batteries. Lithium Nevada, the company spearheading the Thacker project, is facing strong pushback from activists and members of Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone, among others.

“Places like Thacker Pass are what gets sacrificed to create that so-called clean energy,” says author and activist Max Wilbert. “It is easy to say the sacrifice is justifiable if you do not live here.”

Indigenous communities are equally upset at the plan.

“Annihilating old-growth sagebrush, Indigenous peoples’ medicines, food, and ceremonial grounds for electric vehicles isn’t very climate conscious,” said Arlan Melendez, the chair of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.

Opposition to the lithium mine has invigorated a new, vibrant protest movement in Nevada, led by Indigenous activists that see these developments for what they are: a continuation of settler-colonialism, an onslaught fully supported by the Democrats and the Biden Administration. In the case of EVs, Biden’s 2021 American Jobs Plan earmarked $174 billion to promote electric vehicles. The Thacker mine, claims Lithium Nevada, is central to those efforts.

There are also alternatives to lithium like seawater, sodium, and glass batteries. While none are environmentally benign, the impacts do vary. Maria Helena Braga a scientist at the University of Porto in Portugal, who has been researching glass battery technology, believes glass has the brightest future. “It’s the most eco-friendly cell you can find,” claims Braga.

Recently, researchers at the University of California San Diego’s Center for Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice disagreed that we need to mine our way out of climate change, stating that in order to curb greenhouse gas emissions we would have to decrease our output by 80% over the next thirty years. EVs, they claim, would only reduce greenhouse gases by 6%. In other words, the destruction these mines cause is not worth such little benefit. A larger, far more significant transition is needed.

***

In addition to technological advances (and the need to consume less), the energy grid itself must be revamped, from centralized sources of energy like coal or natural gas to a decentralized network of producers, where existing homes and commercial buildings are required to install solar on their rooftops. Big utilities, like PG&E in California, which has been responsible for causing over 1,500 fires and hundreds of deaths in the state, are not pleased with the push for community-controlled, decentralized power. In fact, in an effort to disincentivize rooftop solar, California regulators, after heavy lobbying from energy companies, are currently pushing to slash residential solar incentives, making the transition even more difficult, while supporting large desert developments in the process.

Hundreds of plans for large renewable energy projects are currently in the works in California, New Mexico, and Nevada, and one by one they are set to destroy vast stretches of desert habitat. In 2015, researchers from UC Berkeley and UC Riverside looked at 161 proposed and operational solar plants. What they found was startling. Only 10-15 percent of the projects in California were located in areas that would have little impact on their surroundings. In other words, 85% of these would harm the environments where they’re located.

“We would hope that if a developer was on the ground and saw that, oh, this is a really important area for migratory birds, maybe we should look at that Walmart commercial roof down the road, and collaborate with them rather than putting it here,” said the study’s lead author Rebecca Hernandez, a scientist at UC Berkeley.

While the push for decentralizing is paramount, some argue that locating green energy installations in already impacted areas, like brownfields, is a good alternative. Yet this is rarely the most profitable choice. At the heart of the problem is that public lands in the desert west are inexpensive. The Bureau of Land Management leases huge parcels of these lands for dirt cheap, which in turn incentivizes large-scale wind and solar projects — projects that support Biden’s climate plan, where companies like PG&E will continue to control the grid and small-scale projects will be difficult and expensive to build.

If the goal of clean, green energy is to offset the wrath of climate catastrophe, yet damages sensitive habitats in the process, are these projects even worthwhile? That’s a question environmentalists and others must grapple with. Certainly, they are good for profit margins, but the evidence is mounting that they are also devastating to desert ecology.


JOSHUA FRANK is the managing editor of CounterPunch. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America, published by Haymarket Books. He can be reached at joshua@counterpunch.org. You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank.

Featured image by Antonio Garcia via Unsplash