‘This Is the Wild West Out Here’

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“DYER, Nevada—On a cold, windy day in late October, in one of the most remote and least populated regions of the state, a half-dozen workers prepared to drill another test hole in the arid volcanic rock. They were looking for deposits of lithium, a metal that has become indispensable to smartphones and electric-vehicle batteries, and which geologists estimate is so abundant here that mining companies from around the world are vying for a chance to make the next big discovery. The workers doing the drilling were contracted by Ioneer, an Australian company that has already invested millions in exploring what it believes could be one of the largest lithium producers in the world with an estimated net value of nearly $2 billion.

Like almost all of the surrounding territory, this land is owned by the federal government and overseen by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management. I had come here because I had learned that the Rhyolite Ridge project was threatening a rare wildflower called Tiehm’s buckwheat that is not known to grow anywhere else in the world. Standing with me on the ridgeline overlooking the work site was Patrick Donnelly, the state director of the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group that over the past three years has established itself as one of the most determined—and successful—foes of the Trump administration’s efforts to accelerate mining and development on public lands. The Rhyolite Ridge project boundary sits atop the plant’s tiny 21-acre habitat and from what Donnelly could see, the work was already having a damaging impact. Donnelly pointed to newly graded roads on the site, including a path that cut through two of the main populations of the flower. Three weeks before, Donnelly had filed a petition with federal and state officials to have the plant listed as an endangered species. Now, on a holiday weekend, the mine was buzzing and Donnelly was livid. He had seen nothing like this level of activity on three visits over the summer.

‘What’s changed?’ he asked. ‘Since September 1, well, we submitted our petition.’ But rather than BLM limiting exploration activity at the site as Donnelly had hoped, the work appeared to have significantly expanded. ‘It’s like BLM is doubling down,’ he said.”

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