In early 2020, an electric-vehicle charging station came online in Orovada, a small agricultural community about 45 miles north of Winnemucca. For years now, charging stations for electric vehicles, or EVs, have been popping up across Nevada, in urban and in rural areas. So on its own, there was nothing especially newsworthy about one opening in Orovada.
But over the past few months, as I’ve made trips out to Orovada, I’ve come to view the charging station, tucked behind a Shell station, as important — something of a symbol (though it probably symbolizes different things for different people). The charging station sits behind a Shell station in town that sits near an elementary school and not far from center-pivots irrigating alfalfa.
Orovada is one of the communities near the planned Thacker Pass lithium mine, a project that supporters argue could significantly bolster the country’s domestic supply chain for EV batteries. That is, Thacker Pass lithium could power the EVs that fuel up at charging stations across the country.
Yet for many who live in Orovada and neighboring communities, the mine is a cause of concern. Elders from the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe have voiced opposition. A local group of community members in Orovada and Kings River Valley have met to discuss a series of issues. Environmental groups have sued over the project, arguing that federal permitting was rushed.
I’m writing more about the project in the coming weeks. For now, I bring it up because it reflects, to me, the broader tensions around a reality that is getting more attention, everywhere from the national media to the Biden administration: Increased demand for lithium and other minerals — to power the transition from fossil fuels — is driving new mining. Investors and state officials see opportunities, but there remain concerns about the impacts of more mining.
On Tuesday, the Biden administration released a report on supply chains that specifically aims to work out some of these tensions. As Reuters reported, the 250-page White House document stresses the need to “work with allies to secure the minerals needed for electric vehicle batteries and process them domestically in light of environmental and other competing interests.”
To that end, the White House discusses the need to plan for more mining. It recommends that the Department of Interior lead a working group to find places “where critical minerals could be sustainably and responsibly produced and processed in the United States while adhering to the highest environmental, labor, community engagement, and sustainability standards.” It also directs multiple agencies to find gaps in existing laws related to mine permitting and regulations.
Exactly what we are looking at in a mining state like Nevada?
Last month, the International Energy Agency released a highly-publicized report that predicted a significant increase in demand for certain minerals — lithium, copper, cobalt, rare earth elements — driven by goals to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
“You have this massive push globally toward electrification,” said Andrew Miller, a product director for Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, a firm that closely tracks the lithium market.
As a result, the lithium market is expected to grow significantly in the next decade, he said. But the question is where this expansion will occur and how long it will take to bring projects online.
There is only one active lithium operation in the United States — and it’s in Nevada — at Silver Peak near Tonopah. But there is a lot of exploration in Nevada and in other parts of the U.S.
Yet there remain a number of concerns about the environment footprint of new mines, concerns the Biden document seeks to address.
Patrick Donnelly, the state director for the Center for Biological Diversity, has spent the last two years pushing back against a proposed lithium mine, known as Rhyolite Ridge, near Tonopah. The project threatens a rare wildflower, known as the Tiehm’s buckwheat, found only in Nevada.
But lithium, in general, has begun to occupy more and more of his time.
“There's a tremendous amount of activity [in Nevada],” Donnelly said on Tuesday. “A lot of it is speculative, but there are more projects than just Rhyolite Ridge and Thacker Pass out there."
Donnelly said his group is not opposed to all projects (in fact, he said “we support domestic lithium mining”) but he stressed that new mining must adhere to environmental standards, and he saidfederal and state policymakers must carefully plan where to locate them.
He also advocated looking for technologies to extract lithium that have a smaller environmental footprint than lithium-brine operations and open-pit mining.
As the Pahrump Valley Times reported this year, one company, NeoLith Energy, is exploring direct lithium extraction, a process that could reduce water consumption and the amount land needed for a full-scale lithium extraction plant.
“Without planning, we will keep ending up in controversy and litigation,” he said.
In addition to the federal government looking at the issue, Donnelly said state policymakers should also consider where and when it is appropriate to approve new lithium development.
“We need to deal with this in the very short-term — like this year," he said.
Here’s what else I’m watching this week:
It’s official: On Friday, the governor signed a bill to ban Colorado River water from being used to irrigate decorative turf. We published a feature yesterday on how the bill came to be.
What happens when Colorado River states draw on their Lake Mead savings accounts? Circle of Blue’s Bret Walton looks at a conservation program, meant to keep more water in Lake Mead, that will be tested with the reservoir forecasted to drop significantly in the coming years.
Energy Secretary will be in Las Vegas this week, via Gary Martin at the Review-Journal.
A rare plant species found on only about 10 acres in Nevada and at the center of a fight over permitting a lithium mine warrants federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today.
Environmentalists, clean energy advocates and the mining industry are closely watching how state and federal regulators manage the rare wildflower, which grows on soils rich with lithium, an ingredient needed to support the deployment of more electric vehicles.
Last year, the plant faced massive population loss — more than 50 percent of all plants were found destroyed or damaged. An environmental DNA analysis linked the damage to mammal herbivory, the first time such interactions had been documented.
Prior to the destruction last year, conservationists were concerned about the threat that mining activity posed to the plant. Ioneer, an Australian-based company, is seeking state and federal permits for an open-pit lithium mine. The company has an active mining claim that overlaps with most of the buckwheat’s range.
“The potential impact from the proposed project, combined with the loss resulting from the recent herbivory event, would reduce the total Tiehm’s buckwheat population by 70 to 88 percent, or from 43,921 individuals to roughly 5,289–8,696 individuals,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote in the finding, a copy of which was released Thursday.
In a press release Thursday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that it is “discussing the conservation needs of the species and the company’s proposed lithium mine” with federal land managers and ioneer.
Bernard Rowe, managing director for ioneer, said in a statement Thursday that the company is working on a Candidate Conservation Agreement to help protect the wildflower. Rowe said that the company remains “confident that the science strongly supports the coexistence of our vital lithium operation and Tiehm’s buckwheat.”
“Ioneer remains committed to the protection of Tiehm’s buckwheat irrespective of its listing status, and will implement the highest standard of measures to ensure that the species is protected,” Rowe said.
The finding announced on Thursday is a scientific recommendation by federal wildlife managers that listing Tiehm’s buckwheat under the Endangered Species Act is warranted. The finding is only an initial step in granting the species federal protection, a public rulemaking process that the service expects to begin by Sept. 30.
Since 2019, conservationists and scientists working with the Center for Biological Diversity have urged state and federal agencies to take swift action to protect the rare plant, scattered across a small range outside of Tonopah, its only known habitat on Earth.
“We’re thrilled that the Biden administration has proposed Endangered Species Act protection for this delicate little flower,” Patrick Donnelly, the group’s Nevada state director said in a press release on Thursday. “Tiehm’s buckwheat shouldn’t be wiped off the face of the Earth by an open-pit mine. The service stepping in to save this plant from extinction is the right call.”
The finding comes after the conservation group took the agency to court. As part of a settlement agreement, the agency said it would issue its finding by May 31.
Heralded as a transformative step to move Nevada toward greatly reduced carbon emissions through massive expansions in transmission and electric vehicle infrastructure, state lawmakers heard the first details of the legislative session’s biggest energy policy bill with just two weeks to go before the end of session.
Sponsored by Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas), SB448 would expand the state’s transmission infrastructure in line with NV Energy’s multibillion-dollar Greenlink Nevada initiative, along with requiring a $100 million investment in electric vehicle charging stations, expanding rooftop solar to multi-tenant and commercial buildings and proposing a host of other measures aimed at lowering carbon emissions and building up renewable energy infrastructure.
During the bill’s first multi-hour hearing on Monday in the Senate Growth and Infrastructure Committee, lawmakers and clean energy advocates were not shy about pouring praise on the legislation — ranging from NV Energy CEO Doug Cannon saying the bill “positions Nevada as energy leader in the western United States for decades to come” to Governor’s Office of Economic Development Director Michael Brown saying “448 will be one of those bill numbers that lives beyond legislative sessions.”
Support was not unanimous — several progressive and environmental groups warned that a large infrastructure project could harm fragile ecosystems, and the politically powerful Nevada Resort Association (which represents many casino resorts that have left regular utility service but remain as transmission-only customers) testified in opposition, wanting the state’s Public Utilities Commission to have more authority over the transmission build-out.
Brooks, who sponsored legislation raising the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard in 2019 and 2017, said those bills and past efforts were helpful first steps but that this legislation represented an attempt to “take a more holistic approach at carbon reduction planning for the electricity sector.”
“Imagine a world where in Nevada, we are making most of our own electricity with renewable resources, we're putting them in our vehicles, and we're driving our vehicles,” he said. “That closes the loop and keeps billions of dollars in our economy, and also makes it far more affordable for the individual who's driving the electric vehicle.”
SB448 has two main prongs — transmission and electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
The transmission portions would help finish NV Energy’s proposed “Greenlink” transmission plan, which received initial, partial approval from the state Public Utilities Commission in March. The project would build two major transmission lines aimed at forming a “transmission triangle,” expanding and linking the current 235-mile, 500 megawatt “One Nevada Transmission Line” that links Northern and Southern Nevada.
Brooks said expanded transmission capacity would not only build up grid resiliency beyond the current One Nevada line — pointing at the 2021 Texas electricity crisis as a warning — but would also allow Nevada to more cheaply import renewable energy produced in other states and help diversify the current fuel mix.
“If we just connect the dots with a few transmission lines, we could realize that economic opportunity of being the hub of the western grid, and we could realize the benefits that come with all of that energy that we can export and all that energy that we move through our state,” Brooks said. “The benefits are billions of dollars of economic activity in our state and billions of dollars of private investment in our state and renewable energy projects.”
The other major portion of the bill would require NV Energy to propose and submit a $100 million spending plan for electric vehicle charging station infrastructure over the next two years, with a strong focus on historically underserved areas, outdoor recreation, transit agencies and fleet upgrades for state, local and federal governments.
Much of the three-hour hearing focused on the transmission aspects — a wide variety of groups testified in support including IBEW; businesses including Google, Ikea, Patagonia and Uber; Battle Born Progress and clean energy development groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, Nevada Conservation League and others.
Brown, who heads the state’s economic development arm, said corporations in and considering moving to Nevada were increasingly focused on renewable energy and meeting environmental goals, giving the state a potential leg up on business development if it further committed to renewable resources.
“For the first time, we sat with a manufacturer from the Midwest a few weeks ago, and they looked at us and the first question they had for us is they wanted to talk about renewable energy,” he said. “They wanted to know how we were producing it, how it was transmitted, what the prices were. That's a game changer. We've not had that before.”
Cannon, who helped present the bill, said completion of the Greenlink project would help create a “path forward for us to economically achieve the state's net zero carbon goals,” while opening up new areas for solar and renewable energy development currently cut off from transmission lines.
“We can produce energy in a lot of places in Nevada, but that doesn't do us any good if we can't get that energy from where it's produced to where it needs to be utilized,” Cannon said. “Transmission becomes the backbone that is necessary to fully utilize that energy.”
But that proposed infrastructure expansion attracted opposition from spokesmen for environmental groups including Basin and Range Watch and the Center for Biological Diversity who said they had strong concerns that the legislation allowed NV Energy to rush forward without enough time for environmental review or potential impacts.
“Instead of instructing state agencies to complete a clear-eyed, comprehensive review of where renewable energy might be appropriate in this state, SB448 would throw open the doors to our most wild and pristine landscapes and rely on the tender mercies of the market and fossil fuel companies like NV Energy to decide the fate of Nevada’s wildlands,” Center for Biological Diversity State Director Patrick Donnelly said.
Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas), a former administrative attorney at the PUC, asked what would happen if the promised economic benefits don’t materialize — and how much risk was being shouldered by ratepayers.
Cannon responded that the Greenlink plan was “not a risk-free proposition,” but said the utility was prepared to move forward with the $2.5 billion infrastructure project immediately, noting that customers would not have to start paying for the project for several years and that any proposal by the utility would go through a contested hearing process before the PUC and ultimately have to be approved by the commission.
“There is no guarantee in this legislation that we will recover the dollars of this investment,” he said. “There's not. We have to proceed reasonably, and then we'll trust in the process on the back end that we have the opportunity to recover our investment and earn a reasonable return. It's kind of the regulatory compact that exists between the utility as a private entity and the state.”
But the proposed process in the bill attracted opposition from the Nevada Resort Association — lobbyist Laura Granier said the group was in “technical opposition” because of the complexity of a bill introduced with only two weeks left in the legislative session. She said the association had proposed “clarifying changes” to the bill that would not affect the timeline but would ensure that the PUC “retains authority and regulatory discretion to protect customers from increased rates and making projects more expensive than they need to be.”
“The Commission needs the tools to keep an eye on that,” she said. “We're not saying that they shouldn't earn their return on investment, they should, but through the (Integrated Resource Planning) process they do get to recover costs.”
Both Brooks and Cannon said the bill would not have a sizable impact on utility customers — Brooks pointed to a slide showing the adoption of renewable energy increasing while average electric prices in the state had gone down. Cannon added that opening up transmission markets would help the state access lower-cost power from other areas, and that ratepayers wouldn’t see the cost of the expanded infrastructure until five or six years down the road.
NV Energy, in a filing submitted to the PUC as part of the initial Greenlink filing last month, estimated that customers in nearly all rate classes would see higher base power prices to help pay off the expansion of power lines. Cannon and others said in a previous forum on the bill that those estimates do not include potential benefits from increased transmission access.
Beyond transmission and electric vehicle charging, the bill also creates a Regional Transmission Coordination Task Force, a group of public and private industry officials tasked with helping the governor and Legislature determine the steps needed to join a western states regional transmission organization — an entity that coordinates, controls and monitors a multi-state electric grid. The legislation requires Nevada to join a regional transmission organization (RTO) by 2030, with options for the PUC to delay or waive the requirement.
The bill would also double an energy efficiency initiative for low-income customers from five to 10 percent of the utility’s overall energy efficiency plan, expand a state Renewable Energy Tax Abatement program to cover energy storage projects, reopen a discounted energy rate program that expired at the end of 2017 and require NV Energy to begin including a low carbon dioxide emission reduction plan in its triennial integrated resource plan.
Gov. Steve Sisolak is scrapping plans for legislation creating autonomous “Innovation Zones” with powers on par with counties, and will instead turn the idea he mentioned during his State of the State address into a proposed study.
The decision, first reported by the Reno Gazette-Journal, to punt on the highly publicized proposed legislation will be marked as a loss for both Sisolak and Blockchains Inc. in failing to convince skeptical lawmakers in both political parties to support the idea of allowing the company to essentially form its own municipal government on land in Storey County and build a city run on cryptocurrency. The concept raised eyebrows in national media and on late-night television.
In a press release issued Monday morning, Sisolak said he wanted to ensure the measure had enough vetting time outside of the “limitations” of the state’s 120-day biennial session and current response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Innovation Zones is a bold proposal for our State that deserves additional attention and discussion – and not under the pressure of less than 40 remaining days in the current legislative session,” he said in a statement. “I know that legislators, stakeholders and Nevadans still have questions, and I want those questions to be discussed and answered. I want people to be enthusiastic about this opportunity, not skeptical about a fast-tracked bill.”
Instead, the governor’s office and top legislative leaders said they will form a special joint committee through a concurrent resolution, with three or more members from the Senate and Assembly representing majority and minority parties as membership.
The committee is expected to hold meetings at least once a month and report to the governor and lawmakers by the end of the calendar year, with possible recommendations including abandoning the idea, filing a bill draft request prior to the 2023 session or proposing legislative action prior to the 2023 session, such as in a special session.
Blockchains ran a series of television ads and hired more than a dozen lobbyists (including the politically powerful R&R Partners firm) to push the proposal, and the governor’s office hosted a virtual roundtable in late February to promote the concept.
The general idea, according to draft legislation, would allow a developer with more than 50,000 acres of contiguous land, a promise to invest more than $1 billion in the Zone and an agreement to allow an industry-specific tax to create an “Innovation Zone” — a self-governing county-within-a-county, taking over responsibilities such as tax collection, K-12 education and other services normally provided by county governments.
"The hope was that the Legislature would be able to vet this, and I mean really vet it,” Sisolak said, according to the newspaper.
The governor, a Democrat, said he realized there were a high number of stakeholders and issues involved in the concept, which was circulated as an unofficial bill draft request but never revealed as a formal request or bill. He said he was not sure whether amendments could make the idea feasible.
“I had to look at this and be realistic and pragmatic,” Sisolak told the newspaper.
The proposal was met with a cold shoulder by a wide swath of lawmakers and interest groups. Storey County and other rural counties passed resolutions formally opposing the efforts, some Democratic lawmakers and progressive groups questioned the validity of the proposal and tribal and environmental groups raised concerns about how the proposed “smart city” would obtain the water rights needed to serve an estimated population of up to 36,000 residents.
Patrick Donnelly of the Center for Biological Diversity described it as “a massive water grab from rural Nevada.”
The proposal also attracted questions about the personalities behind it. Blockchains had donated $10,000 to Sisolak’s 2018 campaign and $50,000 to a political action committee affiliated with Sisolak in 2019.
Sisolak spokesperson Meghin Delaney told The Nevada Independent in late March that “campaign contributions have no bearing on decisions the governor makes. Since taking office, the governor's decision-making is focused on what is best for the state and for its residents, regardless of where the ideas come from.”
Blockchains had also hired the financial consulting firm Hobbs, Ong & Associates; the governor’s wife Kathy Sisolak is a director there. The first lady said in response that her firm “has a policy of segregating work assignments to ensure that I am not engaged in any work performed for the State of Nevada.”
Assembly Republican Leader Robin Titus (R-Wellington) said she was pleased that the governor downgraded the idea to a study.
“Stakeholder input should have been step one and I look forward to seeing broader impact studies," she said.
Senate Republican Leader James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) said in a statement that Sisolak had "failed to deliver on his premier economic development policy," and said that complaints of running out of time rang hollow given unified Democratic control of the Legislature.
"The majority party controls the entire legislative process," he said in an email. "Democrats did not run out of time; they just prioritized a Billionaire over millions of Nevadans."
Updated at 8:38 a.m. on 4/26/21 to add comment from Assemblywoman Robin Titus. Updated again at 11:35 a.m. to add a comment from Sen. James Settelmeyer.
Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto introduced long-awaited legislation Wednesday that would change the way public land is managed in Clark County, creating a path to grow the Las Vegas metro area toward California while setting aside land for conservation and recreation.
The introduction of the legislation comes almost three years after the Clark County Commission, then-chaired by Gov. Steve Sisolak, asked the state’s delegation to introduce a public lands bill.
For years, elected officials, county staff and real estate developers have predicted a demand for more developable acreage with the Las Vegas area, encircled by federal public land, forecast to grow. In an interview, Cortez Masto said the bill looks to balance new growth with conservation.
Cortez Masto said she worked to answer the question: “‘How do we find a balanced approach?”
She said the goal, drafting the bill, was “that we actually look to diversify our economies through this bill, that we build more affordable housing but that we also then continue to preserve the outdoor spaces that we have across Southern Nevada for outdoor recreation and conservation.”
“That’s why it took us some time to really talk with folks, engage the cities, engage the county and make sure that everybody had an opportunity to weigh in,” she added.
The bill, as introduced, would open up a large stretch of federal public land, running south along the I-15 corridor toward Jean and the California border, for potential commercial and residential development. It also opens up public land near Indian Springs, Laughlin and the Moapa Valley.
At the same time, the legislation proposes conserving about 2 million acres of public land. The bill would establish 337,406 million acres of wilderness in the county and protect about 1.3 million acres of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness. The refuge is the largest in the contiguous United States and has faced recent threats with the Air Force looking to expand a training range. The bill would also set aside about 350,000 acres of land for wildlife habitat.
In Nevada, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management oversees about 67 percent of the land. As a result, the federal government — and Nevada’s congressional delegation — play a role in how land is managed. Accordingly, the bill proposes changes to land management across the county.
It would convey 41,255 acres to the Moapa Band of Paiutes, whose lands originally consisted of more than two million acres in 1874 and were substantially reduced by Congress one year later. The bill would also convey public land currently leased for municipal use (parks, schools, etc.).
How the legislation came to be is the result of a long, arduous and often controversial process. The county’s original proposal took heat from environmental groups. It protected a fraction of the acreage that Cortez Masto’s bill does and was viewed by several groups as subverting the spirit of the Endangered Species Act. In October 2019, 14 groups sent a letter of concern to the delegation.
Then there was a wait. A discussion draft came out in January 2020, and Cortez Masto signaled that the bill would be introduced in December. In that time, Cortez Masto’s office reached out to dozens of groups to make changes to the county’s original proposal. When the legislation was introduced on Wednesday, my inbox is proof that many groups, though not all, were in support.
The county put out a supportive press release. The homebuilders. The commercial real estate developers. The Nevada Conservation League. Friends of Nevada Wilderness. Save Red Rock.
Shaaron Netherton, executive director of Friends of Nevada Wilderness, said that the bill “would be the single largest designation of wilderness acres in the state’s history, ensuring continued public access to these lands and critical wildlife habitat and cultural resource protection.”
But some environmental groups remain skeptical of the tradeoffs in the bill: future sprawl for conservation. Patrick Donnelly, state director for the Center of Biological Diversity, said the bill was an improvement over what the county had originally proposed. But he said he rejected the premise that conserving more land would offset the environmental impacts of increased sprawl.
Donnelly said in an email that the growth pattern contemplated in the bill “perpetuates a pattern of development that has brought our society to the brink of ecological and climate collapse.”
Dexter Lim, an organizer with the Sunrise Movement Las Vegas, echoed these concerns.
“Our current reality of environmental crises have intrinsic roots in the irrevocable effects of urban sprawl,” Lim wrote in a statement. “Continuing this practice over more sustainable and land-efficient strategies such as infill development is ignorant of the intersectional climate, housing, and transportation injustices that already plague residents of Clark County.”
While the earlier iterations of the legislation did not address climate change, Cortez Masto’s bill does include a provision aimed at climate action. The legislation would allow funds generated through the sale of public land to benefit projects to address climate change in Clark County.
What’s next? Cortez Masto said that the entire delegation supports the proposal. The senator said the bill could potentially move as part of other congressional legislation or independently.
She also said she expects to continue hearing from constituents about the legislation.
“This draft that we're going to put out now, I'm sure there are some people that have not had a chance to see it,” Cortez Masto said. “We're open to making sure it gets in front of them, and if they have thoughts on something in this draft, we're open to listening to them as well.”
Here’s what else I’m watching this week:
Blockchains, Sisolak and a new city: During a roundtable on Friday, my colleague Michelle Rindels asked the governor about environmental concerns, specifically related to water, in his administration’s legislative effort to create Innovation Zones. The proposed legislation would allow a technology company to develop a self-governing community near Reno. Sisolak said the company would be required to find water for the project. The company has, as we reported. The plan is to import water from rural Nevada, raising several environmental and equity concerns.
Where the wild things are: April Corbin Girnus writes in the Nevada Current about legislation, backed by the state’s natural resource agency, that would limit the public release of information on sensitive species: “State officials contend they are trying to protect species. Environmental groups fear the state is aiming to protect proposed industrial developments from public scrutiny.”
Fixing injustices in geographic naming: Lawmakers are considering a bill that would give Indigenous communities more representation in naming geographic places. As my colleague Jazmin Orozco-Rodriguez wrote in our legislative newsletter Monday, “Native voices could be given more prominence in such decisions if the Legislature approves AB72, which would add a Nevada Indian Commission member to the state geographic names board.” On a related note, if you are not already subscribed to our biweekly legislative newsletter, you should sign up here.
Spending big: Nevada Gold Mines, a joint-venture between Barrick and Newmont, donated $500,000 to a PAC affiliated with Sisolak. The PAC gave money to Senate Democrats as the Legislature is looking at increasing mining taxes. My colleague Jacob Solis has a story on it.
WATER AND LAND
Supreme Court rules on domestic wells: The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Nevada’s top water regulator in a long-running and closely-watched dispute over domestic wells in Pahrump, Robin Hebrock reports in the Pahrump Valley Times. For background on the issue, I wrote a piece back in 2018 looking at some of the complexities (and misinformation) around the issue.
The Colorado River negotiating table: Colorado River water users are set to begin discussing how to manage the watershed as the climate changes and populations continue to grow. Luke Runyon reports for KUNC on the conversations about what the negotiating table might look like.
ENERGY AND CLIMATE
A Nevada lithium mine and a new rush: A second lawsuit was filed last week challenging the Trump administration’s decision to permit the Thacker Pass lithium mine north of Winnemucca, Brian Bahouth reports for the Sierra Nevada Ally.Last month, High Country News reporter Maya Kapoor and photographer Russel Albert Daniels wrote about the project in the context of a rush to develop lithium mines in the Western U.S. and Nevada. This story is definitely worth reading.
Reuters reporter Ernest Scheyder explores the tensions around permitting mines and supplying the raw materials needed to transition the economy away from fossil fuels.
USDA puts brakes on land transfer for Arizona mine, the AP’s Felicia Fonseca reports.
Could it happen here? Is Nevada's power grid prepared for more extreme heat waves? Is it prepared for climate change? Utility regulators are investigating that question, my colleague Riley Snyder reports following the winter storm in Texas that led to a devastating power crisis.
Outdoor recreation hit by COVID-19: Despite anecdotal evidence that more and more people are turning to the outdoors during the pandemic, the recreation industry in Nevada ended last year with 3,600 fewer jobs, according to a new report. Mike Shoro reports for the Las Vegas Review-Journal: “State officials had previously suggested the pandemic had accelerated the growth pattern. The new report suggests that may have been true in some cases, but not all.”
Lake Tahoe ski resort sued over 2020 avalanche: “The widow and a friend of a man killed in an avalanche at a Lake Tahoe ski resort last year have filed separate lawsuits accusing the resort of negligently rushing to open the slopes in unsafe conditions for a holiday weekend that’s typically one of the busiest of the season,” Scott Sonner writes for the Associated Press.
Gov. Steve Sisolak urged critics not to write off a proposal pushed by Blockchains LLC to create an autonomous “Innovation Zone” in a large undeveloped tract of Nevada, saying the hard-hit state needs to embrace a unique and bold idea instead of waiting on economic recovery.
Sisolak hosted a virtual roundtable discussion on Friday to offer more details on the Innovation Zones, which are backed by Nevada-based Blockchains LLC and were listed as a cornerstone of the governor’s plans for Nevada’s economic rebound. The company envisions developing a 36,000-person Painted Rock Smart City that is run on a Stablecoin cryptocurrency and supports the company’s efforts toward wider adoption of blockchain technology.
But critics have panned the draft proposal — which has not been introduced yet as formal legislation — to have the Zone slowly secede from the surrounding county. They also question how it will secure enough water without harming the environment or touching off a nasty spate of litigation.
“I'm not afraid of the hard questions. And I'm not afraid to listen to those who believe the concept as proposed is flawed,” Sisolak said. “I just ask that all involved understand that the end goal is a massive economic development investment in Nevada, and a chance ... to set down a marker that Nevada is the blockchain technology center of the world.”
To pursue an Innovation Zone, a company needs to make an immediate investment of $250 million in land and infrastructure, commit to investing at least $1 billion over a 10-year period to develop a smart city, and own at least 50,000 uninhabited acres in Nevada. Presenters called it the highest bar for any economic development program in state history; Blockchains notably owns a 67,000-acre parcel of land in Storey County.
Michael Brown of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development said the project could bring the state 123,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs over the course of a 75-year development. That development phase would have an economic impact of $16.4 billion, according to slides shared during the presentation.
“This is a game changer for Nevada,” Brown said. “Opportunity is knocking here with a multi-generational employment opportunity.”
Economic analyst Jeremy Aguero argued that the model was different than in the past, when the state offered tax incentives to attract the Raiders stadium, carmaker Faraday Future and the Tesla Gigafactory. Innovation Zone leaders would be required to go to the Legislature and have a new, industry-specific tax imposed upon the technology being developed in the Zone, he said.
“The concept here isn’t one of abatements or incentives or anything along those lines,” Aguero said. “As a matter of fact, it's quite exactly the opposite.”
Presenters tried to head off concerns that the Smart City would be a “company town,” saying that the Zone would be governed by a three-member board of supervisors appointed by the governor and independent of the applicant. Those supervisors would be subject to the state’s ethics laws and the Open Meeting Law.
Asked why the proposal called for creating an entirely new political subdivision, Aguero pointed out that the proposed Smart City would be significantly larger than the 4,000-person county it’s currently in, and would require such a heavy administrative lift that starting over makes sense.
“We're not talking about retrofitting a community with some type of innovative technology we're talking about building a city from the ground all the way up,” Aguero said. “You're talking about orders of magnitude different in terms of that technology.”
To concerns that there may not be enough water to supply the development, Sisolak noted there is always a concern about water in any new development. As a city being built from nothing, it would incorporate cutting-edge technology to achieve a carbon-neutral footprint, he said, and “is everything that the environment absolutely needs.”
“They're responsible for providing water to the Innovation Zone. They'll have to buy the water rights, come up with the water rights in order to do that,” he said of Blockchains. “Environmentally, this is the most sound concept you can possibly have.”
Activists scoffed, with one saying the idea was an "outrageous corporate giveaway" that would set the stage for a water war.
“Blockchains LLC's plan is to build a 100 mile pipeline to the Black Rock Desert to drain remote aquifers important to indigenous people, endangered species and Nevada's outdoor recreation economy," said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Governor Sisolak wants to give the keys to our state to tech bros, while enabling a water grab which would destroy the environment."
Above all, Sisolak touted the project as a way to provide affordable housing, diversify the tourism-heavy state economy and provide jobs “that our young people that are in college and in university are looking forward to.” He urged people to keep an open mind.
“We have a long history of embracing innovative creators and bold ideas that others dismiss too quickly,” Sisolak said. “Together, we can turn this big idea into reality that can change Nevada's economic future forever.”
The federal government requires them. Standard confidentiality clauses.
The agreements are rarely discussed. But they are central to SB77, a proposed state Senate bill that could exempt certain pre-decisional meetings and records involving environmental issues from the Open Meeting Law and Public Records Act. Eureka County, a main proponent of the bill, has argued a change is needed to comply with both the federal agreements and state law.
April Corbin Girnus wrote an excellent piece about the issue for the Nevada Current: Right now, counties are often hampered by confidentiality rules. To discuss issues, they are stuck between following (or breaking) the federal confidentiality agreements and the state’s transparency laws.
But open government advocates have argued that the proposed bill would limit transparency in a process that has real-world consequences — whether mines are approved or power lines are erected. Ahead of a recent hearing, a coalition representing environmental groups, civil liberty advocates and news organizations, sent an opposition letter that’s worth reading (here’s a link).
It is worth noting, too, that Eureka County’s natural resource manager, Jake Tibbitts, said the county opposes changes to the Public Records Act, and he is working to amend the drafted bill.
“If this were to move forward, we're totally open to stripping out all of that,” he said.
What struck me was why this bill was proposed in the first place. When the legislation was floated last fall, it was the first time I had heard of these federal confidentiality agreements. Given the federal government’s large role in permitting projects, they struck me as significant.
Before I get into that, some incredibly technical (but important!) background:
Every year, dozens of local governments, tribes and state agencies participate in what is known as the NEPA process. NEPA stands for the National Environmental Policy Act. A lot can be said about it, but for now, the most important thing is that it requires federal agencies to analyze the environmental consequences of projects on federal land — and the outcome is significant.
Nevada is about 85 percent federal land, so there are a lot of NEPA proceedings happening at any given time — and in many different corners of the state. When a federal agency starts the NEPA process, they invite local and state agencies to act as “cooperating agencies” during the crafting of an environmental analysis. It allows local and state agencies to convey opinions in an otherwise federal process. But there’s a downside: This is where confidentiality comes in.
These cooperating agencies — Churchill County or the Nevada Department of Transportation, for instance — must sign agreements with federal land managers, like the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). But the agreements, a BLM spokesperson said, include standard language about confidentiality to prevent the “release of predecisional information or working documents.”
That puts a jurisdiction like Eureka County, an entity governed by three county commissioners, in a tough position. The county, at the center of the state’s gold mining activity, wants to have a say in the process for analyzing environmental impacts. To participate, they must agree to keep information confidential. At the same time, the Open Meeting Law requires that elected officials deliberate in public. But if they deliberate in public, they risk breaking the confidentiality clause.
In 2009, the BLM chastised the county for doing just that: The Eureka Sentinel disclosed a report that showed pumping associated with a controversial molybdenum mine would have big effects on water. The disclosure suggested that the county broke its confidentiality agreement.
To avoid the issue, Tibbitts or one county commissioner typically represents the views of the county in the NEPA process. But state law limits their discussions with other elected officials.
“It's been a whole struggle for me the whole time I've been here,” Tibbitts said.
This is especially a problem in rural counties that have small staffs or lack departments devoted to natural resources issues. Instead, a single county commissioner might take the lead in representing a county’s interests without being able to deliberate with their colleagues.
But is Open Meeting Law the best venue by which to address the issue? That’s another question.
Open government advocates and environmentalists say no. They argue that a federal fix to the confidentiality language, stemming from the “deliberative process exemption,” might be needed.
“The answer isn’t less transparency,” said Patrick Donnelly, the state director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The answer is more transparency. Let’s not make things worse.”
Donnelly sees SB77, as written, fitting into efforts to weaken state law around open government.
He is also watching AB39, an Assembly bill that would exempt agencies from disclosing their deliberations prior to making a decision. Such a move would make it harder for the public to understand the interagency process, and in some cases the science, informing decisions.
“It would eliminate transparency,” he said. “Most public records requests I've ever done, which have resulted in important finds for our conservation campaigns, would have been exempted.”
Here’s what else I’m watching this week:
The Clark County Commission meeting. Yes, I’m aware that everyone tuned into the Clark County meeting on Tuesday for a different item: To watch the commissioners vote to change the name of the Las Vegas airport, currently dedicated to former Sen. Pat McCarran, a virulent and well-documented bigot. Now, with the FAA’s approval, it will be named for one former Sen. Harry Mason Reid. But all that to say, there was another big item on Tuesday’s commission agenda:
The Clark County Commission gave its unanimous approval to a climate action plan (here’s a link to the plan). It’s a major step for the state’s largest local government. With the majority of Nevada’s population, Clark County could play a key role in planning for more extreme heat and drought. “The impacts of climate change are very real and they are upon us,” commission Chairman Marilyn Kirkpatrick said Tuesday. “As a county set in the Mojave Desert, we know what’s at stake with our water and energy supply and intensifying heat island impacts. This plan recognizes those unique challenges.”
“First-hand experience:” Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson cited “Nevada’s diverse population and first-hand experience in issues relating to climate change, public lands, immigration and health care” as reasons why we have “a unique voice that deserves to be heard first” in nominating presidential candidates. Why we aren’t already first? I don’t know. POLITICO’s Tyler Pager and David Siders have more on that.
Natural gas in the Legislature: Gov. Steve Sisolak’s climate strategy recognized the need to transition away from natural gas to meet a goal of reducing total greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050. As I’ve written about before, this issue is coming to Carson City. Earlier this month, Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen (D-Henderson) wrote an opinion piece for The Nevada Independent about why she is proposing legislation that would require gas utilities to undergo a more rigorous regulatory process when building new infrastructure. The bill would also require that state utility regulators study natural gas in the context of the state’s climate goals. Nevada’s largest gas utility, Southwest Gas, responded to the op-ed on Nevada Newsmakers last week.
The natural gas PR-person Nextdoor: Mother Jonesclimate reporter Rebecca Leber digs into the tactics that the fossil fuel industry is using to influence customers to believe that natural gas stoves are preferable to electric stoves. The story includes an example from California, where an employee for a PR firm logged onto Nextdoor to stir up opposition to an electrification effort. Spoiler: There are Instagram influencers too. The reporting provides context for how the natural gas industry is doubling down on past efforts to sell gas stoves amid efforts to reduce fossil fuel use to combat climate change and a growing recognition of the health problems caused by indoor air pollution.
Texas, the electric grid, and climate change: The L.A Times’ Sammy Roth writes that “for all the differences between the events in Texas and California’s more limited rolling blackouts last year, there’s a common lesson: Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and more severe as the climate crisis worsens. And the U.S. power grid is not prepared to handle the hotter heat storms, more frigid cold snaps and stronger hurricanes of a changing planet.”
Shout it from the rooftop: You can’t build a new city without water. When I heard Gov. Steve Sisolak tout Blockchains LLC in his State of the State — with the words “smart city” — I could not help but ask about the water. We started digging, and what we found was that Blockchains, a big donor to politicians (and The Nevada Independent), wants to pipe water from rural Nevada. It scooped up water rights in northern Washoe County for more than $30 million and has also looked elsewhere, including in Humboldt County. The big takeaway here: Development of any sort, though especially a new city, is a question of natural resources as much as anything else.
Rancher sues BLM over lithium mine: A Northern Nevada rancher is suing the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over the Trump administration’s approval of the Thacker Pass lithium mine north of Winnemucca. The lawsuit alleges that the land agency’s approval, in the final days of the administration, violated environmental laws, the Sierra Nevada Ally’s Scott King writes.
Judge rules against lifting mining moratorium: “A federal judge on Thursday overturned a Trump administration action that allowed mining and other development on 10 million acres (4 million hectares) in parts of six western states that are considered important for the survival of a struggling bird species,” Matthew Brown reported for the Associated Press last week. A District Court judge ordered the Bureau of Land Management to reconsider the Trump administration’s decision, which did not fully consider how it would affect the imperiled Greater sage grouse.
The commission to study water law: A few weeks ago, we reported that Supreme Court Chief Justice James Hardesty planned to empanel a commission to study how water law is viewed in the judicial system and examine whether to create specialty water courts. An order requesting the creation of such a commission is now online, and a public hearing is scheduled for March 3.
Reno attorneys fined in Swan Lake flooding lawsuit: A Washoe County District Court judge fined City of Reno attorneys “$1,500 for failing to admit to facts in the Swan Lake flood case filed by Lemmon Valley residents,” Bob Conrad reported for This is Reno. “The sanction is on top of awarding more than $750,000 in damages to plaintiffs in the case. The award does not include attorney fees, which could double the amount owed to plaintiffs and attorneys.”
Contact tracing in wastewater: “Findings from wastewater testing suggest the U.K. variant of the coronavirus is circulating in Southern Nevada, according to one UNLV researcher, but the prevalence of the more contagious variant is unclear,” theReview-Journal’s Blake Apgar writes.
Boost in outdoor activities: The Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) saw a jump in hunting and fishing license sales during the pandemic — and 2021 is expected to be better, Sudhiti Naskar reports for This is Reno. Our reporter Tabitha Mueller broke down the numbers in our legislative newsletter (you should sign up to receive it). “If there is a silver lining, it's in people's turning to nature for mental health, or physical health," NDOW Director Tony Wasley said in January.
Update: This story was corrected at 9:09 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 18 to indicate that NEPA stands for the National Environmental Policy Act, not the Nevada Environmental Policy Act, as an earlier draft stated.
No one can say for sure when the first Tiehm’s buckwheat plants were destroyed last summer.
But what is clear is that by September, multiple surveys had reported large-scale destruction to about half of Earth’s only known population of the sensitive species, Eriogonum tiehmii, a rare Great Basin wildflower caught in the crosshairs of a heated political fight over permitting a mine.
When the destruction was disclosed in September 2020, it lit off a powder keg, and the question quickly turned to who was responsible for the widespread damage: Was it humans or rodents?
State and federal agencies — in addition to environmentalists — began investigating the case.
What struck biologists was not only the scale of the damage but the seemingly targeted nature of the attack and the pace at which it occurred, a time range amounting to a geologic blink. What caused the damage, and why target this particular species?
Ben Grady, a botanist at Ripon College and the president of the Eriogonum Society (eriogonum is the scientific name for buckwheat family), described the scale of the destruction as stunning.
“We've taken something and basically cut the population in half,” Grady said.
The Tiehm’s buckwheat is distributed across roughly 10 acres of land at the base of the Silver Peak Range near Tonopah. Its habitat is extreme, even for the Great Basin, and a passerby could not be blamed for writing it off as inhospitable. But through the long process of evolution, the plant has eked out an isolated existence on patchy outcrops of washed-out clay.
So what had changed to cause such widespread destruction to the species all at once?
Several pieces of evidence point to herbivory by rodents as a cause — perhaps the main cause — of Tiehm’s buckwheat damage. But no one was there, and no one can say for sure how it all happened. It’s likely that a degree of uncertainty about the cause will linger over the incident.
People want a clear narrative, but this is not a story of definitive scientific conclusions. Multiple scientists, in interviews, said the technical work of understanding the Tiehm’s buckwheat and why the destruction occurred is only starting. Meanwhile, the rare plant is at even greater risk.
The curious case of Tiehm’s buckwheat raises questions about the extinction crisis, the role of humans and even climate change. Dig deeper, and there is an unfolding scientific mystery that is closely tied to the climate politics of permitting a mine for lithium, a much-needed mineral to support the electric vehicles and massive batteries required for a decarbonized economy.
“When everything initially came out in September, there was a lot of controversy in terms of what happened and how it happened,” Grady recalled. “But the more jarring thing to me, after the dust settled, was we lost a lot of plants here, and this thing is in a heck of a lot of trouble.”
The initial suspect
The Earth is in the middle of its sixth mass extinction, and there is one primary culprit: humans. In the case of the Tiehm’s buckwheat damage, human activity became an immediate suspect.
As rare desert flora goes, the Tiehm’s buckwheat was already a well-known species by the time its population crashed. In the months prior, the diminutive yet charismatic plant had caught the attention of botanists, environmental activists, land managers and miners across the West.
Even before the large-scale destruction was first reported last August, the Tiehm’s buckwheat faced emerging threats from human activity. Environmentalists said mining exploration and the development of a proposed lithium mine posed an existential threat to the buckwheat species.
The area around the buckwheat, known as Rhyolite Ridge, had seen a sharp increase in human activity, with an Australian-based lithium company, ioneer, seeking to permit the lithium mine.
In late 2019, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned state and federal regulators to protect the plant from extinction. The mining company pushed back, arguing that a mitigation proposal for Tiehm’s buckwheat would maintain the species and emphasizing the need for more lithium in supply chains for batteries and electric vehicles. The rhetoric escalated over the following year.
After the damage was uncovered, an early field survey by the Center for Biological Diversity, the group leading the charge to protect the plant as endangered, found evidence of footprints and new trails leading to the buckwheat. Their fieldwork suggested damage consistent with humans. The implication was that the mining company could somehow be responsible for the damage.
“The buckwheats appear to have been dug up by small shovels or spades,” the group reported.
Naomi Fraga, a well-known botanist and the director of conservation at the California Botanic Garden, helped author the report with the group’s state director, Patrick Donnelly. When Fraga observed the damage, she said her immediate thought was that humans dug up the plant. The destruction varied from plant to plant, and it affected plants far away from one another.
“That is one of the largest puzzles that is hard to reconcile with a natural event: the targeted nature, how specific it was and that it occurred across a whole range of the species,” she said.
Not all biologists were in agreement, and the investigation took a turn to scat.
If the genes fit
As the investigation proceeded, agency officials and the mining company pushed back on the theory of human-caused damage. Several surveys showed lines of evidence pointing to rodent activity. Perhaps a dry summer forced critters to consume food that they would not normally eat.
In fact, when the damage was reported to the state by a UNR graduate student in September, the student noted evidence of rodent damage and wrote in a report that “we did not notice any human or large animal tracks” in the immediate area. On follow-up surveys, biologists for state and federal agencies documented bite marks, burrows and another valuable clue: rodent scat.
Like law enforcement arriving at a crime scene, investigators collected samples and sent them to a lab. In animal droppings, soil tailings and damaged buckwheat roots were strands of DNA, traces of unique genetic material. If rodents were gnawing at Tiehm’s buckwheat, traces of the plant’s DNA should show up in samples, including the scat. Simply put, you are what you eat.
When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported the results of the DNA analysis in December, it supported that rodents — white-tailed antelope ground squirrels, to be specific — had caused the damage to the buckwheat. The study was another piece of evidence to figure out whodunit.
But these conclusions did not linger in the realm of science for very long. Within hours, the new report was injected with political weight. First, ioneer called a press conference with reporters.
James Calaway, an executive for ioneer, reported that the DNA evidence “conclusively shows that the destruction of Tiehm’s buckwheat at Rhyolite Ridge discovered in mid-September was exclusively animal caused.” The report, Calaway said, “categorically refutes the irresponsible assertion by the Center for Biological Diversity that this was an intentional human attack.”
That same day, Fraga, working with the Center for Biological Diversity, questioned how much information could be taken from study. Did it really leave humans off the hook for the damage?
Fraga said she “would be cautious about interpreting the result of this study as definitive proof that rodents caused the extensive damage observed at the Tiehm’s buckwheat population.” She noted that the area had been significantly changed from when the damage was first discovered.
As with most things, the reality was not fully satisfying to those who wanted a neat, conclusive answer. The Nevada Independent talked to the scientist who actually authored the DNA study.
“What people should take away from this study is it is just one piece of evidence in this story,” said Jacqualine Grant, who conducted the DNA analysis and works as an associate professor of biology at the Southern Utah University in Cedar City. “It’s not the nail in the coffin, as it’s being portrayed on one side. And it’s not loosey goosey as it’s being portrayed on the other side.”
Grant, whose background is in conservation biology, said the report “is strong evidence, but it’s not perfect evidence.” Yet she said that when the DNA analysis is taken in consideration of other evidence, such as roots with bite marks, the findings do “lend credence to this idea that somehow rodents were involved.”
From a scientific perspective, the idea that rodents could be responsible for so much damage is unusual, and it would represent a significant scientific finding.
"I couldn't find anything of this scale to a rare plant, and especially a buckwheat, that has been documented,” Fraga said. “There's nothing in scientific literature to suggest this would happen."
Fraga said she still believes human activity could have played a role, and she does not believe that the agencies fully investigated it, opting instead to focus on data that supported the rodent theory.
“I just don’t think it’s a case-closed,” she said.
In the weeks after the damage was reported, the agency investigation was coalescing around a hypothesis of what motivated the rodent behavior. Perhaps swings in weather, even driven by human-caused climate warming, were causing unexpected species interactions.
“We have to assume that the buckwheat population has been there for thousands of years, if not longer, and so have the rodents,” Grant said. “What was different about this year that made the rodents go after the buckwheat in a way that they had not done in previous years?”
There is one thing nearly everyone agrees on. The scale of the Tiehm’s buckwheat destruction was massive and unexpected. Tiehm’s buckwheat persists on eight rocky outcrops at Rhyolite Ridge, and each area represents a discrete subpopulation. These patches are natural but they look as though someone smashed and left several clay pots to dry in the middle of the desert.
Analysis of the damage, conducted by the mining company and a state official, found that all Tiehm’s buckwheat had been killed in two subpopulations with extensive damage in the other areas. According to data collected by the mining company’s consultant, EM Strategies, only about 38 percent of the population was intact after the plants were damaged last summer.
On Oct. 7, Jim Morefield, a supervisory biologist with the Nevada Division of Natural Heritage, filed a report on the destruction, summarizing the damage and hypothesizing what caused it.
He wrote that to the extent survey data “can be extrapolated over the entire Tiehm’s buckwheat population of about 44,000 individuals, one could estimate that 16,000 plants were killed and another 11,000 damaged, leaving about 17,000 plants undamaged as of September 17.”
What stood out to everyone was the scope and rate of damage to Tiehm’s buckwheat. In one email that was shared with The Nevada Independent, Kris Kuyper, biology manager for ioneer’s consultant EM Strategies, wrote that “the amount of plants damaged or dead is staggering.”
The email was obtained as part of a public records request the Center for Biological Diversity filed with state officials. The environmental group shared the records with several media outlets.
The emails showed that the investigation was being closely watched, not only by the scientific community but also by political leaders. One email, from Cathy Erskine, senior policy advisor for the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, informed agency leadership that “the governor’s office is aware of and has taken interest in TB,” or Tiehm’s buckwheat.
Gov. Steve Sisolak’s spokesperson, Meghin Delaney, said in an emailed statement last month that “the governor’s office receives regular updates on a range of activities from state agencies” and that “it has received updates over the previous months on the progress of this issue.”
Although Morefield, who surveyed the Tiehm’s buckwheat in 2010, had encountered herbivory in Great Basin plants before, he said he couldn’t say he’d “ever seen anything this extensive.”
Herbivory on this scale is fairly rare, and it might be surprising under normal conditions, he said. But climate conditions at the site have been less than normal. He hypothesized that significant climate swings in recent years might have affected rodent populations and changed their diets.
After a dry summer, biologists like Morefield have seen an uptick in herbivory to native species.
Morefield is confident that rodents played a role in damaging the buckwheat. He said “the hypothesis best supported by the evidence to date is that one or more small mammal species caused damage to the Tiehm’s buckwheat populations over the period of a couple of months.”
When Morefield views the totality of the evidence, it points to herbivory by small mammals. If humans were involved, it was minimal. But when asked, he could not rule out the possibility of human-caused activity.
“I can’t, for sure, rule out that some human might have gone out on the site and vandalized some plants for nefarious reasons,” Morefield said. “I have seen no evidence to support that.”
From a botanist’s perspective, the findings were even more jarring, said Grady, who studies the buckwheat, a beloved species in the Western U.S. Grady knows a lot about the plant. He is, after all, the president of the Eriogonum Society, a group dedicated to buckwheat enthusiasts.
“I study buckwheat, and normally there is not a lot of herbivory on buckwheat,” said Grady, who has supported the Center for Biological Diversity’s efforts to protect the Tiehm’s buckwheat.
In general, Grady said rodents tend to avoid going out of their way to consume buckwheat.
Insect attacks on buckwheat are also rare. Buckwheats, Grady said, are presumed to produce a secondary chemical, as some plants do, that prevent them from attacks. Still, there is a lot that scientists do not understand about buckwheat in general and Tiehm’s buckwheat in particular.
“They are an interesting group of plants,” he said. “They are charismatic. A lot of these things are rare. But they are not a model species. We don't know a lot about a lot of these species.”
“There are a lifetime of questions,” he added.
For similar reasons, Fraga remains skeptical that rodents were solely responsible for the attack on the buckwheat. If they were, she said the findings should be published in a scientific journal.
“It would be extraordinary,” she said.
From a wildlife perspective, the scale of the rodent destruction was also surprising, although not entirely implausible. Before the DNA analysis identified white-tailed antelope ground squirrels as a possible culprit, the Nevada Department of Wildlife conducted a survey of the plant damage.
The report found evidence of foraging consistent with another species: pocket gophers.
“This damage is consistent with pocket gopher foraging activities and patterns,” Tony Wasley, the department’s director, said in a cover letter for a report on the agency’s survey findings.
“However,” Wasley wrote in October, “the scale over which the disturbance occurred by far exceeds known home range size for an individual pocket gopher. If the disturbance occurred within a short time frame and was the sole result of pocket gopher foraging, it would require that multiple individual gophers simultaneously switched to Tiehm’s buckwheat as a preferred forage item over a relatively short period of time. The likelihood of a synchronized event of selective herbivory for Tiehm’s buckwheat by pocket gophers although plausible, remains unknown.”
The report also identified white-tailed antelope ground squirrels as a possible suspect. Michael West, a state wildlife biologist who compiled the report, said in an email that the rodent species has several life history characteristics that could lead it to cause significant damage to plants.
These rodents have high reproductive potential, meaning that their populations can boom under certain circumstances. Their home ranges can extend as far as 15 acres, overlapping with one another. They are social, and they are aggressive in stocking up on food for winter, West said.
“Combined, these [characteristics] can lead to high levels of activity within a relatively small area and short period of time,” West wrote in an email last month, after the DNA study was released.
In that context, it might not be terribly surprising to see explosive population growth followed by a warm summer push rodents to eat plant parts they might not normally eat. Still, the situation is rare enough that many scientists have described it as anomalous and deserving more research.
For one, many rodents would be needed to consume the plants. Morefield’s report estimates that if 27,000 buckwheat plants were damaged or killed, 900 individual rodents would have had to have consumed one plant per day for the course of a month. If the rodents were hungrier and ate two plants per day in the course of a month, then it would have taken 450 individual rodents.
Of course, no one can say for sure that it happened — or didn’t happen.
“Many biologists wrote into the Fish and Wildlife Service with their opinions that this could not possibly have been caused by rodents because they’ve never seen it before,” said Grant, the DNA study author. “But just because we haven't seen it before doesn’t mean it cannot happen.”
Is it changing climate?
What many of the reports and surveys speculate is a scenario that unfolded with shifts in the climate. Morefield writes in his field report that temperatures in western Nevada last summer were about four degrees higher than the 30-year mean, and coupled with little precipitation.
It mirrored what was seen across the Great Basin last year. According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, 2020 marked the driest year on record for Nevada and Utah.
What’s significant is that this period of heat and extreme drought came after a winter period in late 2018 and early 2019 that saw above average precipitation that fueled vegetation growth.
Morefield and others, including West, the state wildlife biologist, said they could envision a potential scenario where rodents proliferated after rain and snow soaked the region only to face a stressful 2020 that forced ground squirrels to forage for food that they normally wouldn’t touch.
“After three previous relatively wet years, including the extreme water year of 2019, summer of 2020 was exceptionally hot and dry in this region (setting historic records at regional weather recording sites), and this could have led to sudden and increasing resource scarcity for local rodent populations,” Morefield wrote in his field investigation, which was filed last October.
West offered a similar potential timeline, but he said his speculation was observational.
“I do not possess and have not analyzed any quantitative data of vegetation, animal density or body size, or weather conditions related to the Tiehm’s buckwheat herbivory issue,” he wrote.
The hypothesis is bolstered by the fact that Morefield, Grant and other observers, including Las Vegas ecologist Jim Boone, have observed unusual herbivory across the Southwest this year.
Grant can’t say for sure what happened, and she said it might be impossible to ever know without many more years of studying the Tiehm’s buckwheat and its interactions.
But Grant, who studies ecology in the Intermountain West, said what is known is that climate change will have an affect on plants across the region. The problem is it’s still challenging to forecast.
“We don't know a lot about how rodents are going to respond,” Grant observed. “These biotic interactions are going to be affected by climate change, and it's somewhat difficult to predict.”
If the culprit is extreme heat and drought, driven by climate change, the blame falls back on humans. And the twist is that the extraction activity that threatens the Tiehm’s buckwheat — a lithium mine — is needed to address climate change and move to a decarbonized economy.
Ioneer, the company looking to develop the mine, has made this very point in materials it has submitted to the state about its proposed mitigation plan for the plant. In August, the company wrote that “working collaboratively to address difficult issues such as global climate change and species diversity is essential to balancing in ensuring Nevada’s economic and biologic integrity.”
Peter Raven, the president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden and an author of a textbook on botany, is concerned about the interplay between both extinction and climate change.
“All of this is taking place in a much older biological framework,” Raven said.
To make it to what humans refer to as 2021, the Tiehm’s buckwheat and plants like it have had to evolve to the conditions of place, and they’ve survived in areas where their habitats remain. Both disruption to habitats and climate change can pose a threat to plants like the buckwheat, threatening species with extinction in a speed that is no match for the evolutionary process.
“No matter what happens, there is no guarantee that the buckwheat will be able to survive in that place in 20 years where it is now,” Raven said. “The climate’s changing very rapidly.”
And still, Raven, who has signed onto letters supporting efforts to protect the plant under state and federal endangered species law, said that it is essential to try to keep ecosystems intact.
One of his colleagues, Raven said, often says “if you don’t save it now, you can’t save it later.
At greater risk
Today there are cameras set up in the Tiehm’s buckwheat habitat. The plant is being closely monitored by everyone: regulatory agencies, scientists hired by the mining company and the environmental activists seeking to protect it under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Will rodents return next spring, or was the herbivory a one-time occurrence?
Everyone wants to see what happens next. Morefield noted that some damaged buckwheat are beginning to resprout, signaling that at least some Tiehm’s buckwheat plants could recover from the incident. But there still remain many unanswered questions, including the definitive cause.
The problem with rare plants is that, by being rare, they tend to be isolated and understudied. What botanists are looking for is how the Tiehm’s buckwheat responds. Morefield and others are still asking whether the Tiehm’s buckwheat has faced similar rodent attacks in the past.
But Morefield said it’s pretty clear the plant is at greater risk since the damage occurred.
“The smaller the population a rare species becomes, the more challenges it has to survive long-term,” he said, noting that the damage could affect reproductivity and genetic diversity.
Grant, the DNA author, said the damage signified the need to protect the plant. In addition to the evidence of the rodent attack, she pointed to the threats from mining and climate change.
“All of those things together say we really need to have a concerted effort to protect this plant,” she said. “And in the United States, our main mechanism for doing that is the Endangered Species Act.”
Calaway, an executive for the mining company, said at a press conference in December, that a listing under the Endangered Species Act was not the best course of action. He noted that the company has funded numerous studies and efforts to protect the plant voluntarily.
“What is a better approach is to have us working with responsible federal agencies committing contractually over many, many decades to that protection and preservation,” Calaway said.
Since the destruction, the Center for Biological Diversity has filed an emergency petition to list the plant under the Endangered Species Act. The environmental group has asked a federal judge to weigh in on the issue and require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take action. The case is pending.
On Monday, 101 scientists and 15 environmental groups plan to send a letter, organized by the center, to the incoming Biden administration, asking them “to take urgent and decisive action.”
Fraga said she has rarely worked with a plant in as precarious a situation. Before the damage, the Tiehm’s buckwheat faced a threat from the proposed mine. Today it is at even greater risk.
“In the beginning of this story in the journey of trying to protect it, it’s been significantly impacted,” she said. “Now the threshold or baseline has been shifted. It’s a tragedy.”
As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email us with tips or suggestions at email@example.com.
For many, the preferred option was no expansion at all.
That’s the position the Legislature took last year when it passed a bipartisan resolution opposing the U.S. Navy’s proposal to expand the Fallon Range Training Complex on about 600,000 acres of private and federal land across five counties. At a public meeting in Fallon this year, speaker after speaker registered the same opposition: The Navy was asking them to give up too much.
But the Navy remained undeterred in its goal: It wanted to expand its Nevada base. Its current training range of 228,508 acres was not large enough to accommodate modern warfare testing.
To expand its Fallon operation, the Navy must get congressional approval. In June, Congress declined to include the proposal in the National Defense Authorization Act, legislation that sets expenditures for the military. Then in July, the Trump Administration threatened to veto the bill over several issues. The White House “strongly urge[d] Congress” to pass the Fallon expansion.
When it became clear that the Navy proposal could be added to the final legislation, Nevada’s congressional delegation began looking for an alternative. Last week, Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto unveiled draft legislation showing what such a compromise might look like.
Cortez Masto’s draft legislation would transfer about 382,000 acres of federal public land to the military and allow the Navy limited access to train on an additional 247,762 acres of public land.
To balance the training range expansion, Cortez Masto’s bill draft would add 156,000 acres of conservation areas and designate more than 331,000 acres of wilderness. It also incorporates an earlier proposal, offered by the senator last year, to ban oil and gas in the Ruby Mountains.
The legislation also includes specific requests made by tribes and rural counties. But provisions in the draft legislation have been met with mixed reactions.
The draft bill requires the Navy to hire three full-time tribal liaisons. It also includes language to preserve about 79,000 acres of federally-managed land for “the protection of traditional cultural and religious sites” for the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe. It requests that roughly 11,000 acres be held in trust for the tribe, land that includes the tribe’s origin site within the Stillwater Range.
Fallon Paiute Shoshone Chairman Len George told the Sierra Nevada Ally that the tribe was informed of the proposal at the last minute and remains opposed to any expansion. He told the Ally that the tribe has “been against the expansion from day one.”
Under the proposed legislation, the Walker River Paiute Tribe, which has faced widespread historic contamination from ordinance activities, would receive a $20 million upfront payment from the Navy. The bill would also convey about 9,000 acres of public land to the tribe.
“The Walker River Paiute Tribe has always believed in the importance of collaboration and the strength of finding a path towards healing,” Torres added. “Moving forward, we will continue to advocate for protections for our cultural and natural resources and sacred sites.”
The bill also directs federal land managers to convey thousands of acres of public land to rural counties, potentially opening up more development. It could also open up more than 100,000 acres of land, currently managed as wilderness, to increased natural resources development. But those provisions, in addition to the base expansion, are a major red flag for some environmentalists.
Patrick Donnelly, the state director for the Center for Biological Diversity, called provisions in the bill “far-right, anti-public lands stuff” and said they could have consequences beyond the state. His organization plans to oppose the draft legislation and continue pushing Congress for no expansion.
"This bill either bombs, changes control of, sells, conveys or strips protections from literally one million acres of public land,” Donnelly said “It's worse than we even could have imagined.”
“We think public lands need to be managed for the preservation of ecosystems,” he added. “And that is compelling and the American people would get behind that.”
Other conservation groups said the bill struck a balance and was an improvement from the Navy's proposal.
In a joint-statement, Jocelyn Torres, an organizer with the Conservation Lands Foundation, and Shaaron Netherton with Friends of Nevada Wilderness, said the senator “has struck the delicate balance among the competing priorities of protecting public lands for important wildlife habitat and cultural values, addressing some Tribal interests and making progress towards remedying historical injustices, and the vital training needs of America’s servicemen and women.”
The legislation also received support from Republican Rep. Mark Amodei, who introduced his own alternative earlier this year. He described the legislation as taking a “consensus” approach.
Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, said in a statement that he appreciated Cortez Masto and Amodei’s congressional efforts “to make sure Nevada's constituents are heard.”
“My administration has worked closely with the Navy and local stakeholders and I look forward to a resolution that balances the nation's military preparedness needs with fair treatment of the Nevadans harmed by this expansion,” the governor said.
But the fight is far from over, and the legislative language is not set in stone.
Because the Senate and House have passed the National Defense Authorization Act, any changes must now go before a congressional conference committee, charged with reconciling the differences in the bill. That committee will decide whether or not to include the Navy expansion — and the alternative — before a final vote. But a lot can happen before Congress’ current term ends in January.
Here’s what else I’m watching this week:
The Air Force expansion: Democratic Reps. Steven Horsford, Susie Lee and Dina Titus spoke with environmentalists Wednesday on fighting an Air Force proposal to expand a training range into the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, the largest refuge in the contiguous U.S. Earlier this year, Republican Utah Rep. Rob Bishop attempted to attach language to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have given the military control over much of the refuge. While the Bishop language was struck from the bill, it could still re-emerge in the same conference committee considering the Navy expansion.
Many questions here: My colleague Riley Snyder reported on the state writing off nearly $12 million loans for clean energy projects that were never completed. Read this story. David Bobzien, the state’s current director of the Governor’s Office of Energy, who came to the job long after the loans were issued, said there’s “no evidence that anything was ever actually done with the money.” This raises many questions. What kind of oversight was there? And where did the money go?
‘It’s very distinctive:’ Amy Alonzo with the Reno Gazette Journal wrote an excellent piece on the third largest Joshua tree found in southern Nevada. It is estimated to be about 700 to 800 years old. The Joshua tree could be protected as part of the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument.
Sagebrush recovery: Relevant study here. What happens when sagebrush burns in a wildfire? What’s the best way to restore habitat for the wildlife (like Greater sage grouse) that rely on it? A team of researchers tried to answer that question by comparing seeded and planted sagebrush.
When a drought starts over the Pacific Ocean: “Droughts usually evoke visions of cracked earth, withered crops, dried-up rivers and dust storms. But droughts can also form over oceans, and when they then move ashore they are often more intense and longer-lasting than purely land-born dry spells.” Bob Berwyn with InsideClimateNews has more on a new study.
Conservation for climate change: “Restoring natural landscapes damaged by human exploitation can be one of the most effective and cheapest ways to combat the climate crisis while also boosting dwindling wildlife populations, a scientific study finds,” via The Guardian.
Update: This story was updated at 4:02 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 15 to correct a section related to changes in protections for land currently managed as wilderness. An original version of the story said the proposed bill would affect grazing. It would not.
As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email me with any tips or suggestions firstname.lastname@example.org.
The sight was grim: Thousands of rare plants destroyed.
Over the weekend, conservationists confirmed what state and federal agencies had known for at least a week. What they found was the mass removal of Thiem’s buckwheat, a plant species found only in a small stretch of Nevada. About 40 percent of the surveyed population was gone.
In a statement, Patrick Donnelly, state director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the damage appeared to be “a premeditated, somewhat organized, large-scale operation aimed at wiping out one of the rarest plants on Earth, one that was already in the pipeline for protection.”
Donnelly and Naomi Fraga, director of conservation at California Botanic Garden, submitted a report to state and federal agencies chronicling the population loss and calling for “immediate, corrective protective and restorative action.” The report notes that plants were broken off from their taproots and that there were new foot trails, suggesting evidence of recent human activity.
Even before the incident, the Center for Biological Diversity had filed petitions asking state and federal agencies to list the plant as threatened. The petitions cited proposed lithium mining.
The report noted that, earlier this year, the mining company’s consulting firm posted a “missing” sign for the buckwheat at a local store. It offered a $5,000 reward to anyone who found a new population of the rare plant, which evolved to survive under only specific geologic conditions.
State regulators had already started a regulatory process to determine whether the rare plant merited protection. Its only known habitat spans fewer than 10 acres, land that overlaps with the proposed mine. Now Donnelly and Fraga are calling on state and federal agencies to immediately confer endangered species protections to the plant and fence off the habitat.
A spokesperson for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said there is an investigation and the agency “will assess if more immediate action is required” once it is over.
But the department’s statement Wednesday morning said that “as of yet, we are not aware of any evidence that this damage was caused by direct human activity.” As evidence, the agency noted small rodent burrows and “unidentified mammals scattering” on an access road.
Similarly, an executive for the mining company, Ioneer, said that although the investigation is ongoing, the “initial reports show that the cause of this unfortunate situation is a rodent attack.”
“There is no suggestion nor indication that this attack was perpetrated by humans as falsely stated by Center for Biological Diversity,” James Calaway, director of Ioneer USA Corporation said in a statement, accusing the group of “outlandish claims” and “spreading false information.”
Calaway said the company is “deeply committed to the long-term viability of Tiehm’s buckwheat in its natural habitat” and is assisting regulatory agencies with the investigation of the issue.
The idea that herbivores caused this type of damage is difficult for Ben Grady, a botanist and an assistant professor at Ripon College, to imagine. As the president of the Eriogonum Society (eriogonum is the scientific name for the buckwheat genus), Grady has surveyed numerous populations across California and Nevada. Never has he seen this type of ground disturbance.
Based on the pictures, “it certainly looks like human damage,” he said.
If it is human damage, the motive is unclear. In all the years the species has been surveyed, why is population loss being recorded now? The mining company has invested in studying the plant and collecting seeds in an effort to propagate new populations, a mitigation plan that has been criticized by botanists but still one that promotes growing the population, not reducing it.
“The significance, whether it is human or not, is major on the species as a whole,” Grady said in a phone interview. “If this was human activity, this is deviousness to a level that I haven't seen. I don’t know who would benefit from this. When I found out about it, I felt sick.”
The destruction of the plants, Donnelly said, highlight the need for immediate protection.
“We’ll fight for every single buckwheat,” he said.
Here’s what else I’m watching this week:
The climate change mirror: State officials hosted the first of two listening sessions on climate change this week (the third is this afternoon). I’ll write more on these soon, but a few interesting notes. A) There was a big response. B) The comments showed how climate change is a mirror to our current systems. Many speakers discussed issues that have been debated for years now outside of the context of climate change. Property tax. Energy choice. Solar access. Infill. They all got a mention. To honestly tackle climate change is to tackle a lot of other issues along the way. C) The variety of speakers reflected that. It was a range, from climate activists to energy developers to NV Energy. The Southern Nevada Homebuilders spoke, as did the farm bureau.
Colorado River modeling: Federal water managers released new modeling Tuesday showing a nearly 80 percent chance that low reservoir levels will trigger a shortage declaration on the Colorado River by 2025. Water managers in the Southwest, faced with two decades of drought, have been preparing for this moment, including with the Drought Contingency Plan. That plan offers a very specific set of rules that helps the states plan during a shortage and avoid making the problem worse. But there is a broad recognition that additional planning is necessary.
Wildfire power outages: “With a weather system expected to arrive in the region that will bring gusty winds with it, NV Energy says it will likely cut off power in the Incline Village area of Lake Tahoe on Friday to reduce the risk of wildfire caused by power lines,” Jeff Munson with the Nevada Appeal reports.
Largest utility credit: My colleague Riley Snyder recently reported that NV Energy customers are getting a $53 credit on their October bill, the largest one-time bill credit ever.
Migratory birds are dying in New Mexico: And wildlife biologists have yet to determine the exact cause. There are a number of potential causes that are being investigated, from drought to wildfire. A professor at New Mexico State University called the die-off “unprecedented,” Algernon D’Ammassa for the Las Cruces Sun-News reported.
Stericycle lawsuit: Storey County residents are asking a district court to review the County Commission's decision to approve a special use permit for a medical waste incinerator. The company behind the proposed facility, Stericycle, has faced criticism over its track record on environmental and regulatory compliance. More context in our story about the approval.
Coming up: The Nevada Supreme Court plans to rule today on what role the state should play in protecting water for the “public trust” (environment, recreation, etc…). The decision has the potential to touch water rights across the state. Here’s the background.
What I’m listening to this week: Washington reporter Ashley Ahearn is out with a podcast about the Greater sage grouse. The first two episodes are available, and I’ve listened to both. It is a well-reported, honest and thoughtful look at a unique species that reflects the tension between development and conservation on public land. I highly recommend it.