Nevada Biodiversity Notes: We Need to Aim Higher
From flawed energy plans to urban planning to bird conservation, we've set our sights too low.
Greetings all. Summer is here, the desert is hot as blazes, and we finally got a 12-month finding on Tiehm’s buckwheat, so I felt the impulse to get the heck out of town last month. I spent three and a half weeks on the road, on a mix of vacation and field work. When the heat is broiling like it is, the logical place to go is up. Sometimes the best option is ascent. So my travels mostly centered around Great Basin sky island mountain ranges- the Snake Range, the Monitor Range, the Ruby Mountains, the Toquima Range, the Inyo Mountains, Mount Charleston, and of course, what could be considered the grandaddy of Great Basin sky islands, the eastern Sierra. Plus a hot spring-fed alkali wetland here and there. A much-needed respite from the daily email grind. Here’s some pics.
Fighting Extinction in Nevada, Our Webinar on Saving Nevada’s Endemic Species
Before we get to the news, a brief programming note. I gave a webinar as a part of the Center’s Saving Life on Earth program highlighting our work to save Nevada’s remarkable endemic species. You can view the webinar archived here on YouTube, it’s about an hour long including some question and answer at the end.
We Need a Plan
Tiehm’s buckwheat. The Dixie Valley toad. Protect Thacker Pass. Desert tortoises at Gemini Solar. Searchlight Wind & Crescent Peak. Controversy follows renewable energy around this state like a shadow. It’s meant that despite our much-vaunted status as a leader on renewable energy, we haven’t built nearly as much of the stuff as you’d think. Wind energy has never gotten far in the state, at least partially because the only viable proposals have been in one of the most environmentally sensitive parts of the state near Searchlight, which incidentally is now the centerpiece of the proposed Avi Kwa Ame National Monument precisely because of that wind farm proposal. And as for lithium, our two most significant projects are so rife with environmental conflicts that neither is likely to go forward for years, if ever.
In short, Nevada has a renewable energy problem. If we don’t get our act together and make developers put their projects in the right places, our renewable energy revolution could stall out. And yet, our self-styled climate leaders like state Senator Chris Brooks and Governor Sisolak have refused to address these very real and substantial concerns. They rushed to pass Senate Bill 448 during the legislative session, which among other things legislatively authorized the Greenlink West and North transmission projects, with no environmental review of the impacts of those projects. The Nevada Current has a good retrospective look at the substance and politics of SB448. Brooks dismisses concerns about environmental impacts of renewable energy as from those who “don’t want anything built anywhere” (as he says in the Current article), which is just objectively false.
In fact, we are urging state leaders and federal policy makers to start doing a large-scale, statewide planning and environmental impacts review effort on renewable energy and critical minerals. In a Las Vegas Review-Journal opinion piece, Center for Biological Diversity energy justice director Jean Su and I argue that the only way Nevada will achieve its renewable energy goals is to embark on such a plan. We need to do an analysis of where and how is appropriate for renewable energy development and critical minerals extraction, and what technologies and which locations are simply wrong for Nevada. Such a comprehensive analysis would likely find that a habitat for an endemic wildflower, or a cultural landscape like Thacker Pass, or dense tortoise habitat like Gemini Solar, or a biodiverse and scenic area like Searchlight, are the wrong place for industrial energy production or mining. And we, as a society, would prioritize permitting and project development efforts elsewhere, in less sensitive areas. Makes sense right?
We submitted a proposed amendment to SB448 which would have mandated environmental analysis of renewable energy buildout along the Greenlink West and North alignments, but the amendment was rejected. Folks may recall Senator Pat Spearman also had a bill to conduct a study about how the state can build out hydrogen and lithium without destroying our environment, but it died. Scott King has an interview with her about it in the Sierra Nevada Ally.
Speaking of all that, BLM’s environmental permitting for the Greenlink West transmission line project appears to be moving forward. This line, which would stretch from Yerington to Las Vegas, would open up vast stretches undeveloped Mojave and Great Basin desert to large-scale renewable energy development. We referenced it in our R-J op-ed (linked above) as an example of why Nevada needs a plan for renewable energy siting. The very proposal of the project has precipitated a huge rush on applications for solar energy projects in far western Nevada from Yerington all the way to Las Vegas, including applications on the doorstep of Death Valley surrounding Beatty. (Super nerds can scour the PUC docket logs for a first look at pending energy projects.) BLM recently conducted a number of public information meetings, which was sort of a “pre-scoping,” given that the EIS process has not formally kicked off yet. Stay tuned.
Remembering Harry Williams
Word came from the Owens Valley last week that longtime water protector and Bishop Paiute tribal elder Harry Williams has passed. Mr. Williams was a passionate and forceful advocate for his people and his ancestral homelands in Payahuunadü – the Owens Valley. He was well known for his depicting of the rediscovery of traditional water ways in the acclaimed documentary “Paya: The Water Story of the Paiute.”
I’ll never forget a powerful moment when I first met Mr. Williams. There was a room full of activists meeting in Independence to hash out how we were going to deal with the Inyo County Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment (REGPA), which would have designated solar energy zones on private land across Inyo County. Recognizing we were going to have to give on something, we did a little mock horse trading, as a thought experiment to figure out where we might compromise (or cave, if you will). Mr. Williams wanted no part of it, getting up and inculcating us to stick to our guns because no amount of renewable energy was going to fix our broken relationship with the land. “Leave the compromise for the politicians,” he said. That’s stuck with me for years.
I didn’t know Mr. Williams well, but I felt his passing was a notable moment working remarking on. His legacy lives on through his family and fellow tribal members, through the stories he passed down, and through the bold activism he instilled in those around him. Read a remembrance from KCET. Read more about Paya.
Readers of this newsletter or my twitter feed are well aware of my ongoing collaboration with California Botanic Garden botanist Dr. Naomi Fraga. She’s been with me every step of the way on Tiehm’s buckwheat, and this plant would probably already be at the bottom of an open-pit mine if not for Dr. Fraga.
Hard work gets recognized, eventually. A profile of Dr. Fraga was the centerpiece of an expansive article about the Tiehm’s buckwheat saga in Wired magazine. This is far and away the most comprehensive accounting of the fight for this little flower to date. Reporter Greg Barber made numerous site visits to Esmeralda County and spent hours and hours talking to the protagonists (antagonists). We had an absolutely beautiful sunset photo shoot at Rhyolite Ridge with photographer Aubrey Trinnaman for this piece. Because it’s such a long drive, we’ve never forced ourselves to stick around long enough for sunset there. The change in lighting at golden hour was magic. Anyway, take some time one evening this week and sit down with this Wired article. You won’t regret it.
Your Regular Buckwheat Update
A few other items of news and media hits pertaining to Rhyolite Ridge mine and Tiehm’s buckwheat over the past month. You will remember of course that Tiehm’s buckwheat was recommended for Endangered Species Act listing in early June. And now, per the terms of our agreement with US Fish and Wildlife Service as a result of our litigation, we will get a proposed rule to list the species by September 30th. Which is still a ways off, hence the vacation.
Meanwhile, on June 30th, with hours to remain in their fiscal year, Ioneer signed a relatively minor offtake agreement for their lithium. South Korean company EcoPro agreed to purchase 1/3rd of the lithium produced at Rhyolite Ridge Mine for the first three years of its operation. I say relatively minor because it is for a very short duration of time and it is not with a major US battery maker or vehicle manufacturer, as had been widely speculated. Their stock price responded in a very modest fashion, and in general this was not the big blockbuster deal that some analysts had been expecting or thinking requisite for Ioneer’s future prospects. It certainly looks like major investors have been holding back on Ioneer. Maybe people have realized that Ioneer has a wildflower problem.
We had a couple of significant national television news hits on Tiehm’s. Al-Jazeera English ran a segment on Tiehm’s buckwheat last month. I enjoyed going out in the field with those guys. They were a couple of pros, and it showed. We also happened to film on the day the 12-month finding came out, so I was a happy man. Here’s a pic from that day. Fox News Channel, yes like the national Fox News, also ran a segment on Tiehm’s buckwheat. It aired on both Fox Business and Fox News. And I have to say, it could have been a lot worse. Of course, the segment was on the news side of the shop, not on like Tucker Carlson or something, so it was straightforward reporting. But they didn’t go out of their way to make us look like fools, and I appreciate that.
Finally, former Esmeralda County commissioner and Fish Lake Valley resident Nancy Boland wrote an op-ed about local support for Rhyolite Ridge Mine. I’m not going to talk trash about former Commissioner Boland. The people of Esmeralda County are in many ways just as disadvantaged as marginalized communities across the country. The poverty rate is as high as Clark County, believe it or not. They have incredibly limited access to services. Just going to the grocery store is an all-day affair given that it’s a few hundred miles roundtrip. But the boom-bust cycle of a mining project which will only enrich the County for a few years isn’t the answer. At any rate, our focus is Tiehm’s buckwheat, and that’s where our focus remains. As an aside, someone should get the can at Ioneer’s PR firm. They submitted identical versions of former Commissioner Boland’s op-ed to numerous outlets, and the Reno Gazette Journal, Las Vegas Review-Journal, and Sierra Nevada Ally all printed the same exact opinion piece. That is poor form. Must be amateur hour at FTI Consulting.
Some buckwheat quick hits:
The anonymous website 4chan has discovered Tiehm’s buckwheat, which I find to be ominous.
Ioneer hired on some new staff, all mining industry insiders, and made a hullabaloo about it.
Ioneer was issued their Class 2 air quality permit for the mine by the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection (NDEP). You will be hearing more about this air quality permit in the near-to-midterm future, but for now let me leave you with three words: “sulfuric acid mist.”
I’ll point your attention to a number of recent items about sprawl and the Clark County lands bill:
Kyle Roerink and I penned a piece which ran in the DC outlet The Hill, arguing that there simply isn’t an identified, sustainable water supply to allow for massive new sprawl development in southern Nevada. “Yet, some Nevada politicians are wagering they can continue using Lake Mead as a limitless source to develop the Mojave Desert into another Los Angeles. That is at least foolish –– if not negligent.”
A recent letter to the editor that ran in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, arguing, “Sen. Cortez Masto and other politicians are dooming our region to a worst-case heat and pollution scenario if they keep pursuing development without regard to impact, such as what’s being proposed in this bill. Isn’t this ‘desert denial’?”
News 3 LV KSNV’s Max Darrow did a story on the lands bill, highlighting the debate among the environmental community about whether trading public lands protections for climate killing sprawl is a good deal or not. Click through to see what I think!
Finally, speaking of Desert Denial, southern Nevada environmental advocate and beloved community leader Vinny Spotleson gave a presentation of that name last month to the Sierra Club Southern Nevada Group, which provided some details on the County’s plans for development and the politics of the lands bill. The video has been archived, and it’s worth a watch.
Another Landscape-Scale Great Basin Bird Listing Controversy In the Works
The pinyon jay is one of those desert denizens who, at least at a time, were so common that one hardly noticed their cacophonous squawking until they got close and the noise became an insistent reminder of their presence. It is not a charismatic bird, in particular; it doesn’t have the wonderfully unique and bizarre anatomy and lifeways of the greater sage-grouse, it doesn’t have brilliant coloring like the mountain blue bird or the vermillion flycatcher. And it lives in what’s one of the most denigrated and abused landscapes in the western United States – the pinyon-juniper woodland.
The decline of the pinyon jay is not news. Pinyon jay numbers have been declining for decades, due to a whole variety of contributing stressors, but always eluding definitive cause. They actually are a quite widespread species, occurring across the Great Basin of course but also into the Rocky Mountains and even east into the Great Plains in certain places. In sum, they have declined 80% in the past 50 years rangewide, a decline much steeper than their more famous distant cousins, the greater sage-grouse.
New research highlights the plight of the pinyon jay and its many contributing stressors, and it was highlighted by Sierra Nevada Ally reporter Scott King in a recent article. Mr. King has written a number of very detailed and insightful articles on complex ecological topics in recent months, and I’ve certainly enjoyed reading some deep dives on the obscure biological topics he renders interesting and palatable.
The article highlights what a delicate tightrope land managers are walking. They’ve built up a whole Anti-Sage-Grouse-Listing-Industrial-Complex which is largely based on clearcutting pinyon juniper as justification for continuation of the very abuses that led to sage-grouse decline to begin with (grazing, mining, and oil and gas in particular). And now here they are, forced to acknowledge that maybe clear-cutting pinyon-juniper, which happens to be habitat for hundreds of species, isn’t the best way to manage ecosystems. It must be quite uncomfortable for them.
It'll be even more uncomfortable when the pinyon jay gets petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act. We’re not doing so, ourselves… yet. We’ve kicked the tires on that car a number of times. We’re a little hung up because pinyon jay declines have been asymmetric across their range. A listing decision would likely get into the “significant portion of range” policy weeds (Endangered Species Act, §3(6): “The term ‘endangered species’ means any species which is in danger of extinction throughoutall or a significant portion of its range…”). That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. We just haven’t pulled the trigger yet. But we’re not the only ones tossing listing petitions out there. There’s only so many studies we can see documenting the collapse of pinyon jay populations before someone, somewhere submits a petition for the pinyon jay. The irony of an ultimate pinyon jay listing, at least partially due to the desperate and misguided efforts of land managers to avoid a greater sage-grouse listing, would be delicious if it wasn’t so tragic.
Oil Man Goes to Mexico
It would be a waste of my word count and your time for me to go on an extended rant about former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, but let me assure you it is taking all of the exertion from every fiber in my being to hold myself back from using five hundred words or so on such a rant. I’ll just say that he, as emissary of the oil-enriched Obama administration, personally set back the effort of climate justice by a decade or more. There’s a bazillion other problems with his tenure at 1849 C St., but the oil and fracking is a lasting legacy that will be written in the blood of the hundreds of millions who will die from runaway climate change in coming decades.
Anyway, now Biden nominated him to be ambassador to Mexico, because that’s how you reward your old cronies. Gross.
The pandemic prevented the normal biannual Devils Hole pupfish counts, reportedly because counters could not share air from SCUBA diving tanks. However, they point to some potentially hopeful signs in this Las Vegas Sun article. The Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service plan to resume counts this fall.
The lithium gold rush continues – here’s an update in the Pahrump Valley Times on the activities of Cypress Development Corp., who apparently feel they have a viable prospect for an open-pit clay lithium mine in Clayton Valley, nearish to the current Albemarle brine evaporation project.
Speaking of which, here’s a Sierra Nevada Ally article on lithium exploration in general, and the activities of American Lithium Corp., ironically a Canadian company, which is developing the TLC project (Tonopah Lithium Claims) in the hills northwest of Tonopah, not far from the now defunct Crescent Dunes solar project.
Also speaking of which, there’s continued speculative activity regarding lithium claims in Fish Lake Valley. This is of concern because the springs at McNett Ranch and the Fish Lake Valley Hot Well nearby combine to create a really nice alkali wetland ecosystem featuring an endemic fish, the Fish Lake Valley tui chub, and a near-endemic plant, the Tecopa birds beak. We’re keeping a close eye on this one.
Nada Culver, lately of the Wilderness Society and Audubon Society, is now a high level official with BLM, helping to pick up the pieces of rubble that Pendley, Bernhardt, and Trump left in their wake. Naturally this means Republicans are calling for her to be investigated, because that’s what they do. Washington DC inanity.
Chris Clarke’s Letter From the Desert newsletter is always a good read, but this rumination on the border and the Border Wall is really outstanding. “Desert writing is an established genre now, and yet the number of desert writers who pay any attention to the decades-long, completely avoidable atrocity on the southern border can be counted on the stiff-curled, blackened fingers of Olvin Galindo’s left hand. Our collective blindness is staggering here.”
The US Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed downlisting the razorback sucker, a Colorado River fish whose reproductive life cycle was so badly thrown out of whack by dams and invasive species that they only really survive today due an active captive breeding and reintroduction program. Yes, the downlisting is proposed anyway. You can read our press release to get a sense of our predictable alarm.
From our “completely predictable” file, the problem with consent-based nuclear waste dump siting is that nobody wants to consent to a nuclear waste dump. People in New Mexico are obviously complaining about the latest nuclear waste dump proposal, in the wake of the intransigence of those pesky Nevadans killing Yucca Mountain.
That’s it for this round. When in doubt this summer, go higher. And keep on down that long and dusty trail.