On the surface, doing right by the environment may sound like a simple thing. Do things that are good for the environment, and don’t do things that are bad for it, right? Often, that’s the choice we’re faced with, and we have to balance it with other things, like cost and logistics, to come up with the best environmental choice we can make.
But, sometimes different environmental needs can conflict with each other, and that’s what the Bureau of Land Management recently ran into in Nevada. Before I get into that, let’s learn more about the federal agency so readers can have an in-depth understanding of what’s going on.
For those unfamiliar, As the steward of over one-eighth of America’s expansive landscape, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is an agency within the United States Department of Interior that oversees and administers 247.3 million acres across our nation. The BLM headquarters is in Washington DC, where it provides valuable insight on how to best manage this priceless land resource.
You’ve Probably Benefited From BLM Land
If you grew up in the rural western US, or like to go camping in western states, you’ve probably interacted with BLM at some point. Most public forest lands up in the mountains are managed by the US Forest Service, but as you go down in elevation and into the desert, most of the public lands are a mix of BLM land and lands controlled by state agencies. For western states, it’s common for the vast majority of land in the state to be controlled by BLM and USFS.
While it manages broad swaths of land that nobody but ranchers and overlanders want to visit, BLM also operates special places like campgrounds, picnic areas, off-road zones, and wilderness areas. If you’ve ever interacted with BLM, it was probably paying a fee at one of these sites. If you did something dumb, you may have even met a BLM Ranger, the agency’s law enforcement officers. But, sometimes they’ll just roll up and say hello because managing empty land can be a little lonely, and they want to just hang out, so they’re not bad guys.
But, before you go and tell your friends about the BLM cops you read about on CleanTechnica, be sure to explain what BLM is first to avoid acronym misunderstandings (“Why does Black Lives Matter have a police force?”).
An important thing to keep in mind (and BLM does keep this is mind), is that public lands are OUR lands. BLM manages them for us, and we are all generally welcome to visit and use these lands as long as we follow the rules BLM and Congress have set to make sure the lands are also there for future generations, wildlife, and the good of Americans and people around the world.
And, many people who aren’t ranchers use these lands. People are welcome to drive on established roads out there, hike, bike, and even camp for free on most BLM land for up to 14 days at a time (you’ve gotta move at least 30 miles “as the crow flies” if you want to reset the 14-day clock). In some places, RVers and other campers “snowbird” in some places for months at a time with a low-cost permit.
Even if you’ve never gone out to have fun or escape Old Man Winter on BLM lands, you’ve probably enjoyed these lands indirectly. Millions of acres are open to ranchers and other agricultural use, and you may have had food that came from a BLM-permitted agricultural operation. Many movies make use of these wide open spaces, so chances are you’ve watched at least one movie that BLM helped facilitate.
Conflicts Occur, Sadly
I don’t want to sound like a BLM cheerleader just because I like to go out and have fun. It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t always get along with everybody. I’ve personally never had any problems with the agency, but know a number of people who have. In one case, an overzealous ranger caused a family friend a bunch of pointless legal trouble and jail time before the baseless charges were dismissed.
But, much worse has occurred. While ranchers and miners often have disputes with BLM over various issues with permits for their commercial use of the lands, sometimes the disputes get ugly enough to resemble warfare. The Bundy Standoff is probably the most notable example, and there were some interesting things that happened in the aftermath of both that standoff and another in Oregon in 2016. Some of what’s interesting doesn’t look great for the agency, and other interesting things don’t look great for the Bundys and their supporters, but I’ll refer curious readers to Wikipedia articles about the more recent standoffs and “Range Wars” in general and let them make up their own minds about this politically-charged issue. There are also great articles like this one that explain some of the conflict between environmentalists and ranchers.
Lithium Mining Conflicts With Species Protection in Nevada
Now that we all are on the same page about what BLM is, what they do, and that conflicts can occur over the use of public lands, let’s get to recent news where lithium mining has come into conflict with the protection of Tiehm’s buckwheat, an endangered plant.
On January 18, 2023, the Bureau of Land Management made it clear to Ioneer Rhyolite Ridge LLC that using Tiehm’s buckwheat habitat without authorization was strictly forbidden. The areas were being used by their company as a laying area for geotechnical drilling operations in order to acquire essential subsurface data. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) granted approval to Ioneer on November 2, 2022 for its drilling operations. However, this approval was contingent upon the avoidance of critical habitat areas designated by USFWS as housing Tiehm’s buckwheat — a plant listed as endangered under federal law. All related disturbance due to drilling activities must be conducted outside these protected zones in order for the project to move forward.
According to Ioneer, Rhyolite Ridge is home to the largest deposit of lithium and boron in North America, meaning its resources could have an immediate and long-term positive effect on our environment and economy locally, nationally, and even internationally.
On January 12, 2023, the BLM was notified by an third party (possibly environmentalists who sometimes monitor BLM land) of a disturbance within the Tiehm’s buckwheat critical habitat. The following day, inspectors from BLM conducted a site visit and found evidence of an unauthorized water bladder as well as remnants of a laydown yard inside this protected area.
According to BLM, Ioneer has two weeks to provide a response to the trespass notice. While most of its equipment has already been moved off the buckwheat habitat, BLM demands that it should not proceed with any additional reclamation before USFWS and BLM can be present at the site.
But, there won’t be any range wars over Ioneer’s violation. In a statement, the company admits fault and is going to work with BLM to remedy the violation and get back to securing battery minerals.
“We take full responsibility for the breach and sincerely regret the inadvertent noncompliance with the permit,” said Ioneer Managing Director Bernard Rowe. “Since day one, Ioneer has instructed our staff and contractors about the need to observe all permit conditions. We are investigating exactly how this failure occurred, and we will take action to assure total compliance in the future.”
According to the company, habitat for the buckwheat may have been disturbed, but the buckwheat itself was not. It’s also pretty clear from the company’s past YouTube videos that they do know about and try to respect the species.
Here’s a video of what Ioneer hopes to eventually do:
One thing this shows us is that it can be challenging to protect the environment and balance environmental issues. We badly need the battery materials to combat climate change, which would definitely affect BLM lands. But, BLM has to also try to keep efforts to keep lithium mining from harming the land more than it has to. There are often no easy answers!
Featured image: A screenshot from an Ioneer video showing what they eventually hope to do.
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