What really affects hunting in the West

What really affects hunting in the West

What really affects hunting in the West
Deer in high grass near Paonia, Colorado. Photo courtesy P.J. Briscoe

A disgruntled hunter wrote a Writers on the Range opinion recently about Westerners getting fed up with the many out-of-staters coming in and buying up draw licenses to shoot bull elk, deer, bear and other big game animals.

As a hunter myself, I understand their frustration.

But reducing non-resident tags, as Andrew Carpenter suggests, takes us in the wrong direction. The greatest threat to hunting now and in the future is the loss of habitat.

Private lands provide up to 80% of habitat for all wildlife species, including critical winter range that’s the limiting factor for most big game populations. Yet these family farms and ranches are struggling for economic survival and in many places are under immense development pressure.

According to the American Farmland Trust, Colorado is on track to lose approximately a half-million acres of open land in the next two decades. Other states have similarly alarming projections. As these lands disappear, so does the wildlife they support.

Income generated by providing access and outfitting services to out-of-state hunters is one of the few economic lifelines keeping ranches and habitat intact.

As New Mexico rancher Jack Diamond explained, “Without non-resident hunters, we couldn’t survive at this point in the ranching business. I don’t want to see this place subdivided, but we’d have to consider that as a last resort.”

David Olde, also a rancher from New Mexico, concurred: “We ended up with so many elk that we had to reduce our cattle. If I can’t sell hunts, what can I do — turn it into ranchettes?”

For the fourth-generation Bramwell family ranch in Colorado, hunting income is an integral part of their operation.

“Our out-of-state clients have been coming here to hunt for generations,” Darla Bramwell said. “These migratory animals do not care whose grass they are eating or whose fences they tear down as they come from forest lands to eat in our hay meadows at night. Without the income from the non-resident hunters, something would have to give.”

Most states already heavily favor resident hunters, both in draw quotas and license fees. In Colorado, for example, residents are now allocated 75% of licenses while non-residents receive only 25%. Further, non-residents typically pay hundreds of dollars more per license than residents. In Colorado a resident bull elk tag is $61. A non-resident bull elk tag costs $760.

Several things happen when non-resident licenses are further reduced. First, it squeezes the bottom line of family farms and ranches that support wildlife and depend on hunting for a portion of their income.

Second, it harms local livelihoods and rural economies. Visiting hunters outspend resident hunters by a large margin, supporting local restaurants, hotels, stores, outfitting services and the local tax base in rural communities.

As Bramwell said, “When our out-of-state hunters come here, they not only support our family but they support our community. They buy local gifts, food, fuel, lodging, meat processing and taxidermy work.”

Diamond’s operation supports between seven to 10 guides from August through December. “These are good-paying jobs and the money generated is all spent locally in the two counties we live in,” he said. “We buy gas, propane, groceries. We also pay state gross receipts tax on the entire hunt.”

Third, state wildlife agencies depend on the high license fees they charge out-of-state hunters.

Fourth, the loss of visiting hunters would remove incentives for prospective ranch buyers to invest in conserving and managing land for wildlife.

Finally, it would also mean more hunters crowding public lands and forcing elk to seek refuge on private lands, reducing hunter opportunity and creating a lower-quality hunt experience.

Pulling the economic rug out from under private lands and wildlife isn’t the answer. So, what is a better solution?

We need to increase, not decrease, incentives for landowners to conserve habitat and provide hunting opportunities. We should bolster, not undermine, the role of hunting in supporting agricultural lands and rural economies. And we need to improve wildlife habitat on public lands with better management of our forests and rangelands.

The future of hunting — and wildlife — both depend on landowners and sportsmen working together to sustain our remaining wild and working lands.

A photograph of writer Lesli Allison

Lesli Allison is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring conversation about the West. She is CEO of the Western Landowners Alliance, a West-wide, landowner-led organization that supports working lands, connected landscapes and native species, westernlandowners.org.

Wet winter revved up outdoors adventure in 2023

A landscape photo showing Sierra Nevada mountains covered in snow.

A landscape photo showing Sierra Nevada mountains covered in snow.
Following an epic winter, snow blanketed the Sierra Nevada mountains deep into the summer. Photo by Matt Johanson

Trekking along the top of the Sierra Nevada mountains challenges hikers every summer, but this snow-covered range provides a far greater challenge for skilled mountaineers in winter. 2023 will go down in history as the year summer and winter combined for the hardy few in the Range of Light.

Snow and ice made Pacific Crest Trail a trek to remember

Winter conditions that stretched into August led most Pacific Crest Trail hikers to wisely skip the High Sierra this year, though some 200 PCT overachievers braved the buried mountains in June and July. The hardships and deadly hazards they overcame make a typical PCT journey seem like a walk in the park.

Snow obscured their trail, forcing them to navigate an invisible path. High passes like Forester, Mather and Glen became terrifying ice climbs. Sun cups and slush slowed progress to a crawl, leading hikers to start daily around 3 a.m. when frozen crust provided better footing. Raging water and damaged footbridges made river crossings perilous.

A photograph showing a group of about five hikers using poles to hike uphill through snow in the Sierra Nevada
Pacific Crest Trail hikers power their way up a snowy mountain. Photo by Matt Johanson

To top it off, hikers had to carry backbreaking loads: crampons, ice axes, food, fuel, bear cans, cold-weather clothes, shelters and sleeping bags were all essential. That added up to around 50 pounds, or about three times a typical PCT pack weight.

“Each day tested my limits mentally, physically, and emotionally. I cried. A lot. I fell in rivers. I fell and slid down snow. I was scraped and bruised by countless tree limbs. I had blistered feet. It was not easy out there, but I did it. I hiked through the entire PCT Sierra section in a 300-percent snow year,” shared Moony, who journeys under a trail name like most PCT hikers.

“There are no words for what we have gone through,” declared Refill, who chose some to describe his experience anyway: “Frightening, beautiful, bone-breaking, astonishing, brutal, mind-breaking, pure happiness, and sheer terror. Never before have I done something this extreme, challenging, but also beautiful.”

In a historic and drought-busting winter, California received 247 percent of average snowfall, filling reservoirs to 128 percent of their typical storage. The PCT hikers’ unprecedented High Sierra odyssey was just one result of this wet windfall, the outdoors story of the year.

Ski resorts which often close in April or May stayed open until July or even August. Kayakers and rafters enjoyed the biggest rapids in decades. Even desert areas like Joshua Tree and Death Valley saw rare wildflower blooms, delighting conservationists and nature lovers.

There were significant drawbacks, of course. Flooding, heavy snowfall and high rivers caused dozens of deaths and billions of dollars in damage. But California wildfires burned just 20 percent of average acreage compared with the last five years. Since no one can control the destructive effects of tumultuous weather, this outdoorsman suggests that we might appreciate the beneficial ones, too.

Wildlife making a comeback in 2023

A photograph showing a close-up of around seven orange and black butterflies
Monarch butterflies multiplied their numbers in 2023. Photo courtesy U.S Fish and Wildlife Service

Wildlife made some exciting appearances this year. Monarch butterflies continued their recovery after reaching dangerously low numbers in 2020.

A wolverine traveled through California, caught on camera in both Yosemite and Inyo National Forest, for the first time in 15 years. A beaver pup was spotted in ​​Palo Alto’s Matadero Creek, the Bay Area’s first beaver sighting in decades.

All that plus a pack of at least five gray wolves, an endangered species, has moved into Sequoia National Forest for the first time in a century.

The people of the outdoors

The California Outdoor Hall of Fame inducted surfer Bianca Valenti “because of her prowess as an elite big-wave surfer, proponent of gender equality in professional surfing and inspiration to thousands of women to set aside their fears and paddle into the roiling ocean to surf.”

Valenti founded the Better Wave Foundation to empower outdoor athletes, she volunteers with Brown Girl Surf to promote women and girls of color to surf, and serves as an ambassador for Save the Waves Coalition and Sustainable Surf.

“I’m more inspired than ever to help preserve, protect and conserve the great outdoors,” she said.

The hall also inducted fisherman Gary Coe, fly-fishing guide Jay Fair, and cyclist Alan Kalin, who promoted life-saving traffic improvements on Mount Diablo’s windy summit road. The hall has now honored 84 men and 13 women since its inaugural class in 2002.

Students from kindergarten through eighth grade will get more fresh air under a new California state law that requires schools to allow them 30 minutes outdoors per day. The Legislature passed the measure by a rare bipartisan and unanimous vote.

“The benefits of the unstructured play and peer-to-peer social interactions offered by recess are more important now than ever,” said Sen. Josh Newman, the law’s author.

Some personal highlights

A photograph showing two men smiling at the camera, standing on top of a mountain peak, covered in snow, with another mountain peak shining in the sunshine down below.
Matt Johanson and Kevin Jonaitis approach the summit of Pico de Orizaba, 18,491 feet, Mexico’s highest mountain. Photo courtesy Matt Johanson

Your columnist enjoyed some personal outdoors experiences this year, which is worth sharing. They include cycling through Joshua Tree National Park, trekking in Grand Canyon National Park, and climbing the three highest mountains in Mexico. I was also fortunate to explore the Patagonia mountains of Chile and Argentina for the first time.

More significantly, I managed to complete the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, 26 years after my first PCT hike. The experience taught me more than I expected about human kindness, as practiced by hundreds of selfless trail angels who make such journeys possible.

Trail angels deliver water to the desert, give hikers rides to and from town, host and feed us in their homes and much more. In a world which seems to lack benevolence, they radiate generosity and motivate others to do the same.

After finishing my hike, I jumped at the chance to help my brother lead three friends up Yosemite’s Half Dome this fall. Felipe, Christian and Gama had never climbed the shapely mountain before and were aching to try. Everyone laughed when Dan and I discovered the three had comically overstuffed their packs and we made them unload a pile of unneeded gear. The new climbers grinned from ear to ear as we ascended the cables.

A photograph showing a group of five people posing in front of a large flat granite rock, known as Half Dome.
Leading friends up Half Dome provided an outdoors highlight. Photo courtesy Matt Johanson

When they called their families jubilantly from the summit, I realized this was a lifetime highlight for them, and that helping them achieve it was one for me, too. I’m going to try to give more happiness to others in 2024 and beyond.

Progressives Hope ‘Rural New Deal’ Will Address Economic Issues and Appeal to Voters

A photo showing a rural highway, with a close-up of a worker's hands on the bottom.

A photo showing a rural highway, with a close-up of a worker's hands on the bottom.
Photo courtesy Rural New Deal

Progressive Democrats of America and Rural Urban Bridge Initiative have co-authored a policy paper laying out a set of strategies to revitalize the economy in rural areas through “federal investment in bottom-up solutions.

With input from rural leaders and advocates, the Rural New Deal brings together economic policies that are popular with progressives and tailors them to suit the needs of rural communities.

Democrats have a chance at winning in 2024 if they work to rebuild trust with rural voters, Anthony Flaccavento, director of Rural Urban Bridge Initiative (RUBI), told the Daily Yonder.

“The federal government is proposing this policy template, but every element needs to be organized such that it’s sensitive to the specifics of the regions, that the programs are being applied and that there is local input into how they actually operate at the local level,” Flaccavento said.

The Rural New Deal is made up of 10 overarching economic policy goals, or pillars. These include items such as breaking up corporate monopolies and ensuring livable wages, among others. Each pillar comes with a set of actions that either the federal government or other rural community leaders can take. These range from providing subsidies to small businesses to expanding road and rail infrastructure.

Additionally, the Rural New Deal focuses on other policy areas like sustainable food production, broadband expansion, affordable housing, public education, and healthcare. It calls for measures such as Medicaid and Medicare expansion, investments in vocational training, and free community college.

The release of the policy document comes at a time when the Democratic Party is becoming less competitive in national races, according to Jeff Bloodworth, a professor of political history at Gannon University in Pennsylvania who studies rural elections.

He said the Democrats have increasingly focused their electoral strategy on urban areas since the 1960s, while gradually devoting less attention to rural voters. They performed especially poorly in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, losing the rural vote to Republicans by more than 20 percentage points in both.

Progressive candidates like Pennsylvania U.S. Senator John Fetterman and former Maine State Senator Chloe Maxmin won their seats after years of organizing in their states’ rural communities. But Democrats as a whole often don’t run candidates in rural areas, especially at the state and local level, Bloodworth said.

“Half the state legislative seats in Mississippi, the Democrats don’t even run a candidate,” Bloodworth said. “And Mississippi’s not an outlier. Democrats were competitive and controlled the state legislature in Mississippi well into the ’90s they just quit trying. They don’t show up anymore.”

Alan Minsky, the director of Progressive Democrats of America, and Flaccavento view the Rural New Deal as an important step in building a relationship between progressive candidates and rural communities, both during and beyond elections. But they both see potential issues with its implementation. They anticipate Republican opposition to the Rural New Deal’s calls for increased government investment or decreased privatization, as well as lingering biases against rural voters from Democratic politicians and pundits.

Urban progressives have assumptions about how rural Americans vote: that they all vote Republican, that they vote against their own interests, or that they simply don’t care about the same things urban progressives care about. Flaccavento said these assumptions can lead Democrats to dismiss the issues that rural Americans face. Republicans, by contrast, are more likely to try to appeal to rural voters, Minsky said.

“The Republican Party has consistently presented itself as the ally of business and therefore it fits in with this notion of being the party that advocates for pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, do hard work, etc,” he said.

Though Republicans have consistently outperformed Democrats among rural voters in recent elections, rural voters themselves – especially young rural voters – have expressed dissatisfaction with how both parties handle economic issues. Minsky, who remembers Ronald Reagan’s elections in 1980 and 1984, saw how unpopular his administration’s economic policies were among rural workers, policies that are still part of the Republican Party’s platform.

“He really initiated an era of economic policy of not securing and supporting independent businesses and family farmers and allowing the process of corporate monopolization to begin. And then sadly, when you get the Democratic administration coming in ’92, they in no way reverse that,” he said. “In fact, they again acquiesced to the policies for the most part.”

Republicans’ use of “culture war” strategies has also produced mixed results in capturing rural support. In Ohio, a 2013 state constitutional amendment that would have restricted abortion rights failed to attract as much support in rural areas as candidate Donald Trump did in 2020. Similarly, rural Wisconsin voters shifted 5 points to the left in the 2023 election of pro-choice progressive, Janet Protasiewicz, to the state Supreme Court this past April, compared to senatorial and presidential elections.

Flaccavento said that voters’ responses to these strategies are complex and often informed by their material conditions.

“Culture war issues are way more effective in dividing us in large part because people feel abandoned economically,” Flaccavento said. “As Democrats begin to really prioritize the needs of everyday people across geography, but especially in rural, … then it’s much more likely that those other issues will be like, ‘Well, we don’t agree, but that’s OK.’”

Bloodworth added that urban progressives need to understand the nuances of rural political attitudes if they want to get support for policies like the Rural New Deal.

“We should not assume that people in rural America are naturally more conservative…Their liberalism, where they are liberals, has a different sensibility,” Bloodworth said.

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

When it comes to mining on sacred lands, some tribal members say their voices have been overlooked

A photo of a Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation resident standing in front of a trailer home, with a sign that says Defend the Sacred

A photo of a Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation resident standing in front of a trailer home, with a sign that says Defend the Sacred
Dorece Sam is a resident of the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation, which is located near the Thacker Pass lithium mine project. Credit Alejandra Rubio / Sierra Nevada Ally

Logo of Rural News Network with transparent background

Speaking out: Rural communities of color changing the narrative
The nearly 14 million people of color who live in rural America face unique challenges that run the gamut — from navigating racism in real estate, environmental regulation and the justice system to gaining access to healthcare and broadband. This six-part series from the Rural News Network, made possible with support from the Walton Family Foundation, explores the issues these communities are facing and what some are doing to change their fates.

Bethany Sam feels a spiritual connection to the high desert of northern Nevada.

A member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Kutzadik’a Paiute people, Sam works for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, whose reservation sits just north of Reno, Nevada.

It’s about 200 miles from what could be the country’s largest natural deposit of lithium, a critical mineral suddenly in high demand for use in electric vehicle batteries and electronics.

The distance doesn’t mean Reno-Sparks won’t be affected by the decades-long process of extracting the material from the ground and putting it into the domestic supply chain. A Canadian firm, Lithium Americas, has received federal approval to begin mining at the site, and several indigenous and environmental groups are worried about the potential impacts.

While the tribal government nearest to the project has a community benefits agreement with the company, residents of the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation and other nearby reservations are dissatisfied with the level of community outreach by federal officials.

Sam said regional tribes, who are all connected to the land, were not consulted, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management instead opted to communicate with just a few tribes.

“BLM thought that they only had to consult with who they wanted to, not realizing how we’re all related. They should have reached out to more tribes with this consultation, knowing that it was going to be the largest [lithium mine] in the country. They should have really made sure all the Great Basin tribes knew,” she said.

Mining History

A black and white photograph with dozens of wooden home structures along a mountainside.
The discovery of gold and silver in 1859 drew people from around the country to Nevada, creating the town of Virginia City almost overnight. Photo courtesy Bureau of Land Management

Since its inception, the state of Nevada has been a hotbed for mining. The state was granted statehood during the Civil War, and contributed greatly to the Union through its gold and silver reserves. The Comstock Lode, a major silver ore, sparked mass settlement into the area as people sought to make their fortunes. One such man was a young writer named Samuel Clemens, who upon failing at the mines, took up a job at the local newspaper. It’s here he was first published using his pen name, Mark Twain.

Today, Nevada is the world’s fifth largest producer of gold, digging up significantly more of the valuable material than “The Golden State” of California next door. But, there is another extractive industry taking root in the remote high desert of northern Nevada: lithium.

A 6,000-acre lithium mine and processing plant is under construction in remote northern Nevada, but the project has been stalled by a series of legal challenges from environmentalists, a local rancher and regional tribes. The tribes have said the Bureau of Land Management did not conduct proper consultation with them about this project, which was approved during the pandemic when many tribal governments were closed and dealing with the immediate needs of tribal members.

When it comes to any large-scale projects on federally managed public lands, the BLM is required to consult on a government-to-government basis with affected tribal governments. In the case of the Thacker Pass lithium mine project in northern Nevada, tribes across the Great Basin say that didn’t happen – and that’s causing concern and division among tribal members.

The BLM says in December 2019, it sent certified letters to four regional tribes: the McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe, the Pyramid Lake Tribe, Summit Lake Paiute Tribe, and Winnemucca Indian Colony tribes. The agency says “no comments or concerns have been raised during formal government to government consultation for the Project by the tribes.”

A screenshot from BLM documentation talking about its Native American Consultation
From the BLM’s Record of Decision in Jan. 2021

With no objections raised, the BLM approved Lithium Americas’ plans in January 2021 — at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Janet Davis, the chairwoman for the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe, told Grist in 2021, “One letter and some emails to the THPO [Tribal Historic Preservation Officer] during the pandemic when she was furloughed does not constitute ‘meaningful consultation.”

Winnemucca Indian Colony chair Judy Rojos told the Nevada Current she didn’t receive a letter until April 2021, after the project had already been approved. And the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe sued the BLM in February 2023, claiming that they weren’t properly consulted on the mine either. Both of those attempts were ultimately rejected by a federal district court judge.

The Bureau of Land Management declined an interview for this story.

The project has caused division among residents of the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation, which sits a few dozen miles from the mine site. The Tribal Council has been in favor of the project for the economic boom it would bring to the region, while some elders and others have said it would ruin sacred land and water.

That led some members of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe to form a group, People of Red Mountain, which has been fighting to raise awareness of the project.

“Nobody really knew anything. It was just all this small talk going around about a lithium mine,” said organizer Chanda Callao.

Calls to the Fort McDermitt Tribal Government were not returned.

While not required, the company itself says it has been working with Fort McDermitt tribal members for years leading up to the start of the project.

“We have a vested interest in making sure that your communities thrive,” said Tim Crowley, vice president of government affairs for Lithium Americas.

The company has entered into a community benefits agreement with the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone tribes, pledging to build an 8,000 square feet community center that includes a daycare, preschool, playground, cultural facility and communal greenhouse.

“There is an initial investment that we’re making that’s north of $5 million,” Crowley said.

Crowley said all these legal challenges from tribes have been dismissed in court, and this mine is a good project. The federal government and state of Nevada have given the company all the necessary approvals, so he said it’s time to move forward.

The Thacker Pass Lithium Mine Project

A photo of two poster boards showing the location and layout of the Thacker Pass lithium mine project.
These poster boards show the location of the Thacker Pass lithium mine project, as well as how the site will be laid out, with the open pit, processing plant, waste rock and more. Credit Noah Glick / Sierra Nevada Ally

Lithium is a metal that is used in lithium-ion batteries, which powers everything from smartphones and laptops to electric vehicles. The U.S. government has deemed it a critical mineral, with the Biden administration investing billions into domestic lithium development.

The Thacker Pass lithium mine project in rural Humboldt County, along the Nevada-Oregon border, will extract lithium from the ore and process that material into lithium-carbonate, the final component used to make batteries. The project will also include an on-site processing plant, which Crowley said helps to secure the domestic supply chain.

“In terms of scale, it’s large. It’s going to be one of the top five producers in the world, certainly the highest producer in domestic areas…it’s a game changer project,” said Crowley.

A photograph of eight glass jars on a table, showing the different phases of the lithium extraction process.
At the Lithium Americas Technical Center in Reno, Nev. visitors can see what the material looks like along every step of the process, from ore (far left) to final lithium carbonate (far right). Credit Noah Glick / Sierra Nevada Ally

Lithium Americas has staked hundreds of mining claims in the area, and estimates that this mine could ultimately provide enough lithium for 1 million electric vehicles a year, for 40 years – and that’s just in the first phase.

The project has garnered attention from both the Trump and Biden administrations, investors and the auto industry, with General Motors recently agreeing to invest $650 million into the company. Crowley said GM will be buying all of the mine’s products for the first ten years, roughly 400,000 tons of lithium-carbonate.

“So we’re not worried about who’s going to take our material, we’re focused on making sure that we produce it in the most sustainable way we possibly can,” Crowley said.

A report from McKinsey & Company estimates the global demand for lithium-ion batteries to increase about 27% annually by 2030, with most of the growth coming from mobility. The Thacker Pass lithium mine project is significant, promising an economic windfall for the people of northern Nevada. But, it’s also causing division among rural communities, including among members of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes.

Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation

A photograph of tribal elder Arnold Sam standing outside in front of a camper and makeshift wooden building
Arnold Sam, a tribal elder at the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation and direct descendant of one of the lone survivors of an 1865 massacre, says it’s important to speak out against these large-scale projects. Credit Alejandra Rubio / Sierra Nevada Ally

Nestled within the vast expanse of the high desert of northern Nevada lies the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation. The area, which crosses into Oregon, was first established as a military outpost in 1865 before it was converted into an American Indian reservation school in 1889.

Arnold Sam is a tribal elder who has lived at Fort McDermitt since he was born, and says it has always been hard to find work here. He’s had to travel to nearby cities, including Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, Denio and Carson City, before eventually retiring back at the reservation.

“I’ve been on the road for I don’t know how many years living out there in the white man’s world, working and all of that,” Sam said.

Economic opportunities are hard to come by in this part of rural America. According to the latest Census data, the median household income at the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation is $16,477, more than $53,000 lower than the U.S. average.

In addition to the community benefits agreement, Lithium Americas says it is also providing opportunities for good-paying, union jobs, starting with construction, then transitioning to mining operations. But Sam said he’d like to see more from the company to help the day-to-day lives of the residents of this remote reservation, who travel roughly 74 miles to Winnemucca, Nev. for basic supplies and services.

“Bring in homes, we need a lot more homes. Bring in a grocery store or something so we [can] just go a little ways over here instead of driving to Winnemucca. Build another clinic, a bigger clinic,” Sam told the Sierra Nevada Ally.

Sam isn’t convinced the mining company is listening to the issues and concerns of tribal members.

“They don’t care. That’s all they’re talking about, is this money, money, money. They’re not thinking about the Indian people around here,” he said.

And he’s not alone.

Bringing in the Tribal Family

A photograph of tribal rights activist Bethany Sam, standing outside, with a raised fist
Bethany Sam says residents of the Fort McDermitt Reservation asked for help in slowing down or stopping the Thacker Pass lithium mine, because “their tribal council wasn’t listening to them.” Credit Alejandra Rubio / Sierra Nevada Ally

Back in Reno, Bethany Sam (no relation to Arnold) said her traditional knowledge has helped her form a spiritual connection to the land.

“People just look at Mother Earth as the nature that you go recreate in, that you can go hike or go see really pretty waterfalls or things like that. But when it’s just open desert and nothing, they look at it as nothing,” Sam said.

After hearing from Fort McDermitt residents, many of whom said their tribal government wasn’t listening to their concerns, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony began drawing up maps, outlining the cultural significance of the region. Michon Eben manages the colony’s cultural resource program and serves as its tribal historic preservation officer.

“We stated that this is our cultural area that we would like to be consulted on. However, if there was a big project, then we needed to be consulted,” Eben said.

A photograph of a woman looking at a computer, in a dark room.
Michon Eben pulls up maps on her computer, where she has compiled areas of cultural significance to indigenous peoples of the Great Basin. Credit Alejandra Rubio / Sierra Nevada Ally

She said BLM Winnemucca received letters from the RSIC and several tribes in 2021, showing their opposition to this specific project. Much of the resistance is because in the BLM’s documentation approving the mine, there was no mention of an 1865 massacre of Washoe, Shoshone and Paiute people that occurred near the proposed site.

“The environmental impact statement, the record of decision, the Memorandum of Agreement, the Cultural Resources Inventory, the Historic Property Treatment Plan, a lot of the permitting documents that BLM provided to Lithium [Americas] does not talk about the September 12, 1865 massacre, and that’s a historic event that should have been evaluated according to the National Historic Preservation Act.”

A painting depicting a massacre of native peoples from white settlers on horseback
A painting depicts the 1865 massacre of indigenous people by Nevada calvary men, as part of a display at the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. Credit Alejandra Rubio / Sierra Nevada Ally

Eben argued the massacre site, and the region, is culturally significant, meaning it’s eligible for some protection as part of the Register of National Historic Places, managed by the National Parks Service. Because of this, she said federal agencies should have conducted interviews with regional tribes to better understand the cultural and historical significance. She helped put together a determination that was sent to BLM Winnemucca making her case.

“And a few weeks later, BLM Winnemucca wrote back and said, ‘Yes, they agree with the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, that our determination is eligible, we recommend it eligible to the register of National Historic Places,” Eben said.

But, Eben said the BLM never sent that to the National Parks Service [NPS] – and that could mean the difference between protection and destruction. Property listings under the National Register of Historic Places generally offer no protections, unless “the property is involved in a project that receives Federal assistance, usually funding or licensing/permitting,” per the NPS.

The entirety of the Thacker Pass lithium mine project is on federal public lands.

The Bureau of Land Management Winnemucca declined to comment for this story, due to pending litigation. But, Lithium Americas has acknowledged that a massacre did occur, just not close enough to the mine.

“It’s been analyzed and studied extensively that regrettably there was a massacre in the Quinn River Basin, which is several miles from our project,” Tim Crowley with Lithium Americas said.

To Eben, that argument rings hollow. She said there are many members, residents and employees of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony who have ties to the Thacker Pass area, and the entire mine project lies within the cultural district they are working to get recognized.

“It doesn’t matter about being the closest, what matters is that we’re all related,” she said.

This reporting is part of a collaboration with the Institute for Nonprofit NewsRural News Network, and the Energy News Network, Flatwater Free Press, Mississippi Free Press, New Mexico In Depth, Religion News Service and Sierra Nevada Ally. Support from the Walton Family Foundation made the project possible.

Speaking out

Report highlights dirty legacy of mining in the West

An aerial image showing a dry area in Utah with an open pit in the middle. This is the Bingham Canyon Mine.

An aerial image showing a dry area in Utah with an open pit in the middle. This is the Bingham Canyon Mine.

Extractive industries like oil and gas, and mining have essentially worked under the same legal and regulatory framework for more than 100 years. That has left a toxic legacy that is still being felt to this day.

Rachael Hamby is the policy director for the Center for Western Priorities, a conservation advocacy nonprofit. This month, the group released a report titled “Backyard Problems: The Toxic Legacy of Extractive Industries in the West.” Hamby recently spoke with Sierra Nevada Ally Executive Editor Noah Glick about the report and what we can learn from it.

Sierra Nevada Ally: Before we get into the report, can we just set the stage a little bit as to some of the policies over time that have regulated the extractive industries and where are we today?

Rachael Hamby: There are two main categories of extractive activity that we looked at and the policies that govern those. One is hard rock mining, which is still governed by the General Mining Law of 1872. The other is oil and gas development, which is still governed by the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, though it is important to note that several the provisions of the Mineral Leasing Act were just updated a year ago by the Inflation Reduction Act, which passed in 2022.

So, we’ve got two frameworks that are both over 100 years old that are essentially governing how these extractive industries work. And these laws were passed before some really landmark environmental laws were passed. So, what’s the impact of that?

I think that’s a really important thing to look at. So, when the general mining law was passed in the several years following the Civil War, the goal was to encourage settlement and development in the Western states, which had newly been added to the country. So, the priority was to encourage people to go out and establish homesteads, and mine and farm, and figure out how to use all the natural resources that were there. And, also to settle those states with, to be quite frank, white European settlers who were coming from the east. So, with that as the goal, those laws were crafted to encourage that.

We hadn’t really seen large scale extractive activity. People were probably not as familiar as we are today with some of the impacts from that type of extraction – whether it’s the water quality impacts, toxins escaping and dust getting into the area, we just didn’t really know all of that yet. And it’s important to keep in mind, too, that this was dudes going out into the hills with, you know, a pick axe and a shovel. It wasn’t mining, or oil and gas drilling, on the scale that we see today with massive ore trucks and all the different earthmoving equipment that we have today, and all the other technology that has drastically accelerated the scope and the scale of modern mining.

So, those laws were put in place with a different set of goals, and based on a completely different set of technology. Those frameworks have really formed the basis of the entire system of staking mining claims and establishing mining rights and drilling rights in the West. That’s kind of the foundation upon which we’re still operating a century later.

We still have a framework where mining and drilling rights are supreme. And then we’ve layered over these environmental safeguards, which try to guide how we do those activities and minimize the impact. But we’re still operating in a system where mining rights, drilling rights, are the foundation and we’re just addressing the symptoms of that activity.

So, you’re saying that essentially, a mining claim is the supreme use of public lands still to this day?

That’s right. So again, as we were putting those laws in place, resource extraction and development was considered the highest and best use of the land. If there was a resource on the land or under the land, our top goal as a nation was to get those resources out. So, to encourage people to take on the risk associated with doing that, they wanted to offer incentives essentially, which would make it easier for miners to secure rights to the minerals. That made mining more appealing and attractive, and helped to counterbalance some of the risks that miners were taking on.

An aerial photo showing gigantic open pools filled with blue liquid, among a dry, desolate Western landscape. The entire project site has been cleared of vegetation and looks more like dirt, while trees and other brush surround the landscape.
An image of White Mesa Uranium Mill, from the Center for Western Priorities’ Backyard Problems report

Now I think is a good time to talk about the legacy of what that has meant, when you’ve got this system in place. What has that meant for the West over the last 100+ years?

I think a big part of the problem is that we are still operating now under a system that was designed for what we knew 150 years ago. Over the past 150 years, we have learned a lot more about how ecosystems work, how water quality, air quality, and landscape health are all intertwined, and are impacted by the various activities that we undertake. Mining technology and techniques have advanced drastically over the past 150 years. Oil and gas drilling, you know, we now have fracking, we have horizontal drilling, we have a lot of other technologies and techniques that we use there. And yet, we have not updated our legal and regulatory frameworks to keep up with what those activities look like now.

We continue to prioritize those activities in terms of how we assign rights and how we use the land. We’re just not living in that same world anymore, in terms of what the various demands on the land are, and in terms of what we know about the impacts and how we could address them.

I want to get into the report, because there’s a map that includes some of these areas of mines that still have this legacy of waste or some kind of pollution. What exactly is in the report? What did you look at and what did you find?

We selected about a dozen examples across the West of places where we are still seeing the impact of legacy hardrock mining or drilling, and/or we are seeing how the failure of laws and regulations to keep up with the changing times are impacting communities and landscapes and habitats today. One thing that I think about a lot as I was writing this report is, this is a movie that we have seen before. And in so many cases, we have seen this movie in the same theater. It doesn’t change, it still ends the same way when you watch it again. It still ends the same way when you see it again in the same theater.

For example, in Butte, Montana, we have a legacy mining district from the late 1800s, that is now a massive Superfund site. We have spent decades trying to address the problems, the pollution, the contamination from activity that dates back 100 years. Right next to that, we have an active modern mine, where we can expect a lot of the same impacts. It’s the same digging of an open pit and releasing toxins into the air and the water. The juxtaposition of those two sites, I think really captures what we were getting at with this report, where we see the impacts of historical activity. And, we are still doing that same activity in the same places under the same legal and regulatory frameworks, and then expecting the results to be different.

A map showing Idaho, Montana and Wyoming with a graphic of a large pit mine in Montana.
In this interactive map from the Backyard Problems report, users can explore different mine sites throughout the West.

What is next? You mentioned that last year in the Inflation Reduction Act, there was an update to the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920. Can you tell us what that update was and what are some of the other policies or priorities that you would like to see the government take on?

The Inflation Reduction Act, which was passed in 2022, made a series of honestly long overdue reforms to the federal oil and gas program. The Act increased the royalty rates for onshore oil production. That’s the payments that oil and gas companies make to us, the taxpayers, who own that resource. It raised the minimum bids for onshore oil leasing, it raised the rental rates, it added a fee for expressing interest in parcels for leasing, and it ended non-competitive leasing, which was a system where if a parcel was offered for auction, and it didn’t generate a competitive bid, a company could then come back and buy that lease at a very low rate. All of those practices were eliminated.

Now, the Bureau of Land Management is engaged in a rulemaking process to implement some of the reforms that were made by the Inflation Reduction Act, as well as to update minimum bonding rates for oil and gas operations, which currently are too low to accurately reflect cleanup costs.

The other policy that we’re very interested in is an update to the General Mining Law of 1872. We’ve seen a lot of proposed reforms to this law over the years. Most recently, we’ve seen the Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act (there’s a version introduced in the House by Representative [Raul] Grijalva and a version introduced in the Senate by Senator [Martin] Heinrich). These the two bills are a little bit different, but their framework is very similar. They would treat hardrock mining very similarly to how we treat oil and gas. So, putting in place a leasing system and a royalty rate, similar to what we have currently for oil and gas, setting very clear environmental and reclamation standards, and ensuring the taxpayers get a fair return through a royalty rate, which currently does not exist for hardrock mining.

Those bills, I think, would be a great start towards updating that law for modern times.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

What is Nevada’s climate strategy? There isn’t one.

An image of Lake Mead in July showing significant drops in water levels

An image of Lake Mead in July showing significant drops in water levels
A “bathtub ring” shows the historical high water level in Lake Mead, in this photo from July 2014. Courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

July was the hottest month ever recorded on the planet. It just happens to be the same month Nevada Governor Joe Lombardo pulled the state out of the U.S. Climate Alliance, a state-led initiative to reduce impacts of climate change. In that decision, Lombardo said the U.S. Climate Alliance is not aligned with Nevada’s energy goals of reliability and affordability.

The move follows a March executive order, in which Lombardo ordered the state climate strategy be reviewed and revised based on his energy policies.

So, what exactly is the governor’s plan to address climate change? He doesn’t have one.

Over the last five weeks, the Sierra Nevada Ally has reached out to the governor’s office eight separate times for clarity on this topic, and have yet to receive a single response from the governor or his press secretary, Elizabeth Ray.

So, we took our request to the Governor’s Office of Energy (GOE). If the climate strategy is to align with energy policy, it would make sense GOE would have the info we wanted.

“While energy is a piece of climate strategy and the climate conversation, and our office has a part to play in this realm, we aren’t the ‘keepers’ of the state’s climate work,” Stephanie Klapstein, public information officer for GOE, wrote in an email to the Sierra Nevada Ally.

“The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection [NDEP] is the lead agency in this area, and they are probably better positioned to answer questions related to the larger picture of climate,” she added.

So, we took our questions to NDEP.

“I wanted to make sure the Governor’s Office had reached out to you. We were advised that the Governor’s Office of Energy might be the best contact for this story,” NDEP public information officer Matthew McDaniel responded.

With no answer from Lombardo, and confusion from GOE and NDEP, we’re left wondering who exactly is in charge of the state’s climate strategy. Who are the “keepers?”

“DCNR [Department of Conservation and Natural Resources] and DOE are working with the Governor’s Office to align our State climate policies with the governor’s energy goals. Any updated climate policy will reflect that,” McDaniel said in a follow-up email.

To be clear, there is no requirement for Nevada to have a climate strategy in place (in fact, just 24 states and the District of Columbia do), and we’re unsure at this time if there will be a new strategy or when that would be released.

So, what do we know?

A screenshot of Executive Order 2023-007 which establishes Governor Joe Lombardo's energy policies.

On March 21, Gov. Lombardo issued an executive order establishing his energy policy goals, and in that, ordered the Nevada State Climate Strategy to be reviewed and revised to reflect these new energy priorities.

“The state’s energy policy will be focused on developing and maintaining a robust, diverse energy supply portfolio and a balanced approach to electric and natural gas energy supply and transportation fuels that emphasizes affordability and reliability for consumers,” the order begins.

The order then further emphasizes the governor’s goal of diversifying Nevada’s energy sources, as a way to help mitigate rising energy costs that have been hurting Nevadans this summer. It’s clear the governor wants his energy policies to create economic benefits in some way.

“The energy policies pursued by this administration will focus on job creation, economic development and investment in our state by directing our energy providers to deliver affordable, reliable and sustainable energy to Nevada residents and businesses.”

The order also suggests streamlining the permitting process for energy projects, developing more in-state energy production and investing in more transmission and storage.

You can read the full order here.

This seemingly balanced approach seems a bit less balanced when you look at Lombardo’s action in July, removing Nevada from the U.S. Climate Alliance, a bipartisan coalition of state governments that, according to its website, are “advancing state-led, high-impact climate action.”

“While the goals of the U.S. Climate Alliance are ambitious and well-intentioned, these goals conflict with Nevada’s energy policy objectives,” Lombardo’s letter stated, referencing his March executive order.

NDEP spokesperson Matthew McDaniel said his agency has received $3 million from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop three climate action plans through 2027, adding that after completing the first report, billions in federal dollars could be made available to Nevada. But, this a different initiative from the state’s climate strategy, of which there is currently is none.

Again, we reached out to the governor’s office eight separate times and never received a response.

Hot, Hot, Hot

Source: Climate Central

The problem with not having an official climate strategy is that the planet is warming whether plans are made or not.

“There is no one on the planet that is not feeling the effects of climate change,” said Dr. Andrew Pershing of Climate Central, a nonprofit organization of scientists and communicators who research and report on climate change.

“It’s really more about which of the effects that you think you might have a better shot at adapting for, preparing for, being somewhat resilient to,” Pershing added.

According to the organization’s research, this July was the hottest month ever recorded on the planet, with 2023 having a 99% chance of finishing as one of the top five hottest years on record. The other four years are 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2020.

Reno and Las Vegas are the two fastest-warming cities in the country. Since 1970, the average temperature in Reno has risen 7.8 degrees Fahrenheit, while Las Vegas has seen an increase of 5.9 degrees Fahrenheit.

“In the 70s in Reno, there was a very different type of climate. It was a lot cooler. When I was at UNR [University of Nevada, Reno], people were talking about how a lot of the buildings that were built in Reno, they didn’t have air conditioning, there wasn’t really a need for it. And then you see now it is absolutely necessary, which is something that people are struggling with,” said Kaitlyn Trudeau, scientist with Climate Central, who got her master’s degree at UNR.

Climate Central found that Nevada has also seen the largest increase in what’s called cooling demand days, meaning as temperatures continue to rise, the need for effective cooling will also rise.

“We’re seeing almost every single day above the normal temperatures and the toll that takes on really every part of our community,” Trudeau said. “Schools, can close. Schools, our economy, businesses, the environment, animals.. this is [an] across the board thing. We’re all being impacted by this.”

A graph of the fastest-warming cities and states, showing Reno and Las Vegas as the two fastest-warming cities.
Source: Climate Central

Residents are then left either footing the bill for expensive cooling systems, or paying for it in other ways, as Dr. Kristi Ebi from the University of Washington explained.

“When you look at the official numbers, it’s about 700 Americans [who] die every year from the heat… At the end of the century, without adaptation or mitigation, there could be an additional 100,000 or so deaths from heat,” Ebi said.

The U.S. government has set goals of reducing emissions 50% compared to 2005 levels, and to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. But, as Climate Central has reported, that will require help from states.

“Although the U.S. has reduced emissions by about 1% per year since 2005, this pace is not fast enough to meet national targets by 2030,” the report stated.

“Reaching these targets requires action at the state and local levels.”

What say you, Governor?

Increasing fire weather places emphasis on defensible space

A photograph taken from a peak located on the east side of Pyramid Lake in northern NevadaFire requires three things to thrive: fuel, oxygen, and a spark. And right now, there is plenty of fuel drying out across the region.

Toxic Nuclear Waste is Piling up in the U.S. Where’s the Deposit?

Decades on end and after spending billions, the U.S. still has no strategy to permanently deposit its highly radioactive nuclear waste.

Some 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, deep in Southern Nevada, lies a multibillion-dollar hole.

Twenty years ago, the George W. Bush government formally chose the dry, arid landscape to build a tunnel complex. The Yucca Mountain project would have been the place to deposit up to 70,000, or more than 75% of the 90,000-and-growing metric tons of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel coming from commercial reactors in the country. Yet, almost from the onset, locals and politicians resisted the project because of what it would entail: a constant stream of nuclear waste coming into Nevada from where they are currently stored, hundreds of miles away. (Only one of the 75 sites with currently operating nuclear plants are even located within the Mountain States, an eight-state region including Nevada that spans nearly 900 thousand square miles across the Rockies.) And so, between 2009 and 2010, the Obama administration kept its campaign promise and stopped the project.

“I just didn’t like it. It was too much danger in nuclear radiation leaks. And, it just didn’t

make sense. Then, the safety aspects […] I don’t know quite how to put it, it just didn’t make sense to transport that kind of stuff through this area when the areas that were keeping it couldn’t just keep it in their own backyard.”

“I don’t know quite how to put it, it just didn’t make sense to transport that kind of stuff through this area when the areas that were keeping it couldn’t just keep it in their own backyard.”

Barbara and Ken Dugan lived near Crescent Valley, Nevada, back in 2011. The events of the Fukushima meltdown were fresh on everyone’s minds. They were speaking to Abby Johnson, then the Nuclear Waste Advisor for Eureka County who worked on collecting opinions from local communities after the Yucca Mountain project shut down.

Another decade on, the U.S. still has no solid solution for its nuclear waste. Nuclear power leaves a small carbon footprint compared to other types of energy. Still, the question of managing its waste is complicated. Nuclear waste can stay radioactive from a few hours to hundreds of thousands of years. Therefore, scientists and the industry agree that the best long-term solution is to bury the waste underground in large, heavily engineered repositories while it remains unsafe. But building these sites seems to be a difficult endeavour, and the U.S. isn’t the only country struggling to get it done.

Out of the 32 nations operating nuclear reactors today, only Finland is close to finishing a deposit. Countries like the U.K., where the first nuclear power station in the world to produce electricity for domestic use was built, are struggling with finding a site in the first place. According to a 2018 report, “Reset of America’s Nuclear Waste and Management”, prepared by the Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs, for 50 years, governments and committees worldwide have launched at least 24 campaigns to create underground repositories. Still, in only five of these, committees managed to choose a site to work with. And so, the question arises: how come nations capable of technological breakthroughs like sending humans to space can’t seem to find a place for their radioactive waste?

A lack of policymaking consistency hasn’t helped the nuclear waste cause on American soil; that’s what Rodney Ewing — co-director of CISAC and the former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board who reviewed the Department of Energy’s efforts to manage and dispose of nuclear waste during the Obama administration— thinks is part of the answer.

According to him, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, which represented the path forward in managing nuclear waste in the U.S., kept changing throughout the 80s and 90s. For example, congressional amendments in 1987 specified Yucca Mountain as the sole candidate site instead of allowing for multiple candidate sites to be considered. More recently, the ongoing chaos of re-funding and re-defunding Yucca Mountain by the Trump administration made it challenging to convince anyone. “The more you keep changing direction, or changing the rules, the less trust you can count on from candidate communities. The lower the probability that you will be successful”, he adds.

“The more you keep changing direction, or changing the rules, the less trust you can count on from candidate communities. The lower the probability that you will be successful”

Ewing believes the country needs cohesiveness and an independent organization to move forward — perhaps in a manner similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority, as recommended by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future in 2012, or a non-profit, nuclear utility-owned implementing corporation, as suggested in the 2018 CISAC report.“In the past, Yucca Mountain suffered from the fact that the Department of Energy wears many hats, everything from fossil fuels, solar, nuclear, nuclear weapons, and so on. Somehow, in that broad context, developing a geologic repository was low on the [priority] list.”

Another hurdle that has made this project an uphill battle in the U.S. is the bungling of public engagement. Unlike the NIMBY battles unfolding across the country that are snarling public transit, solar farms, or less-carbon-intensive forms of housing, Yucca Mountain falls on Western Shoshone territory, where Indigenous residents are still dealing with the consequences of resource extraction and nuclear testing by the federal government without their full consent, leading to their sustained opposition to the project. This is not to mention other local fears about the toxicity levels of a deposit, the permanence of the project (radiation levels were expected to be regulated for the next million years), and the impact it might have on property and land values. “The state of Nevada has not been willing to accept this possibility [of a nuclear waste deposit]. And so, the federal government has dealt with a state that doesn’t want the repository. That’s a social issue”, says Ewing.

To minimize public outcry, it’s key that a site is decided voluntarily: a community states they’d accept a nuclear waste site in their area, and only after initial conversations should projects start. This is one of the reasons Finland ended up being successful with their project when the local authority voted overwhelmingly in favour. Yet, according to Pasi Tuohimaa, the Communications Manager at Posiva — the company responsible for managing radioactive waste in Finland —there’s more to the whole process. Culture takes center stage when choosing a site. He told The Xylom that communities where nuclear power plants had been active for decades tend to be more accepting of hosting a nuclear waste site. “If you have a strong nuclear identity, if you have a site where there’s been a power plant for 40 years or 45 years, then people know […] a lot about radiation, they know about radiation safety”. He also mentions that Finns, in general, want to solve the issue of nuclear waste rapidly not to harm future generations. “The Finnish people believe that if our generation has created [nuclear waste], then it’s our generation’s duty to take care of the waste and not leave it for the solidarity of future generations”, he adds.

“The Finnish people believe that if our generation has created [nuclear waste], then it’s our generation’s duty to take care of the waste and not leave it for the solidarity of future generations”

Other nations like Canada and the U.K. are now moving forward with strategies in which communities host deep geological repositories voluntarily. The Biden administration is also moving forward with a consent-based siting approach; however, the aim is to make storage sites, not geological repositories15,18. This means waste will be stored for some time but not in the long term: a permit issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in May to build and operate one such facility in southeastern New Mexico is valid for only 40 years. Ewing is skeptical of such an approach.“I call it indefinite storage. And I would say indefinite surface storage of highly radioactive waste […] is not a very attractive solution. It’s not a solution.”

Building deep geological repositories is crucial to safely deposit nuclear waste despite being a tall task. As other western Nations inch closer to having their own sites, it remains to be seen whether the U.S. has the will to drive a much-needed site forward, or whether it is content with kicking the can down the road — until the country buckles under this mountain of a problem.

Hay – yes, hay – is sucking the Colorado River dry