The Time Has Come

by Mason Voehl

In the heart of the Amargosa River watershed, on Death Valley’s eastern shoulder, a coalition of Tribes, conservation non-profits, and local government leaders has rallied around a singular idea: that life and water in these arid desert lands are the same. This is a direct response to an escalating interest in mineral exploration and lithium extraction on the doorstep of Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, and near the doorsteps of homes and businesses in the nearby communities of western Nevada. Born out of concern for impact to groundwater that sustains the human and wildlife communities near Ash Meadows, the coalition is urging leaders within the Department of the Interior and Congress to take decisive action. The call has been issued for a withdrawal of public lands from new mineral claims and exploration to enhance safeguards for this exceptionally sensitive cultural and ecological landscape.

The road to an Amargosa Valley mineral withdrawal began in the summer of 2023, when a proposed lithium exploration project on the boundary of the Ash Meadows Refuge first came to light. Ash Meadows is part of the ancestral homelands of the Timbisha Shoshone and Southern Paiute Tribes, and remains a culturally and spiritually significant site.

Located just outside of Death Valley National Park, Ash Meadows includes 24,000 acres of springs, seeps, and wetlands in one of the hottest and driest deserts on Earth.  Home to at least 26 endemic species that live nowhere else, Ash Meadows is a critically important biodiversity hotspot and a designated Wetland of International Importance under the United Nations.

Canadian mining company Rover Critical Minerals (then named Rover Metals) submitted an application to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) seeking to conduct a lithium exploration project that included drilling up to 30 boreholes to a depth of 300 feet on the northern boundary of the Refuge. The exploration would occur atop a groundwater flowpath of the Amargosa River known to contribute to the springs and wetlands of the Refuge. The company acknowledged that they expected to encounter groundwater in every drilling location. In addition to potentially paving a path to the creation of an open-pit mine adjacent to one of the most critical biodiversity oases in North America, the exploration project itself raised significant concerns.

c. Map 1 - Amagosa Basin
New Rover claims April 2024

Left: hydrographic basin at Ash Meadows and the upper Amargosa Valley.

Above: new claims  (April 2024) by Rover Critical Minerals.

The Nature Conservancy Nevada chapter quickly commissioned a hydrological analysis to evaluate potential impacts to groundwater resources that could result from exploratory drilling in this area. This analysis indicated the potential to alter groundwater flow that sustains significant springs in the northern portion of Ash Meadows. The mining company’s closest borehole location came within just a few thousand feet of Fairbanks Spring, one of the largest springs in the refuge and home to the endangered Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish and Ash Meadows speckled dace.

c. Pic 2 - Fairbanks Spring

Fairbanks Spring. Photo by Mason Voehl

A coalition including the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, 24 nonprofit organizations, local governments, and concerned citizens led the fight against this project over the summer and raised the alarm. As a result of public pressure and litigation filed by the Amargosa Conservancy and the Center for Biological Diversity, the BLM rescinded their approval of Rover Metals’ initial project application on July 19th, 2023. The BLM also required the company to conduct a full National Environmental Policy Act review and to submit a full Plan of Operations.

An awareness bloomed that despite 40 years of protected status and management under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ash Meadows remains highly vulnerable to impacts from beyond its designated borders. And beyond Ash Meadows, the rural communities of this corner of the Mojave desert also came to the realization that their lives and livelihoods revolved around the sustainable conservation of groundwater. Consensus quickly formed around the notion that left unchecked, mineral exploration and industrial mining on unprotected public lands posed a potentially existential threat to communities whose lifeblood is the flow of groundwater ferried by the Amargosa River.

In recent months, formal support for withdrawal of certain public lands from new mining entry has been issued by the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, the Amargosa Valley Town Board, the Beatty Town Advisory Board, and the Nye County Board of Commissioners. The diversity of this coalition which also includes numerous conservation leaders is illustrative of the true value of water in the desert, and its ability to transcend political and ideological divides. At the core of the coalition’s concerns is how alteration or depletion of groundwater would fundamentally erode a host of values – cultural, spiritual, recreational, and economic alike – and perhaps make life in this hostile environment altogether untenable. “No new ghost towns in Nye County” has become a mantra guiding the coalition’s efforts to raise awareness around the risks involved in permitting mining activities in such a landscape.

In an attempt to meet the BLM’s new review standard for the project, Rover Critical Minerals submitted a revised draft Plan of Operation in December of 2023. The slimmed-down proposal, detailing plans for 21 boreholes to a maximum depth of 150 feet, was deemed insufficient by the BLM and not accepted. Several months later, it was discovered that the company had staked nearly 8,000 additional acres of new claims on BLM lands in and around the residential center of Amargosa Valley, and less than one mile from the boundary of Death Valley National Park.

New 2024 claim stake near Longstreet Casino

Photo by Mason Voehl

c. PIc 3 - New claim stake near Longstreet Casino

Local residents alerted their town government board of these new mining claims, some staked directly across the street and within mere feet of residences and businesses. The new project area  – named the Longstreet Lithium Project by Rover Critical Minerals – entails as many as 400 new claims and is set atop an established groundwater flow path sustaining springs and domestic wells in Death Valley and on reservation lands of the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe. Claiming this new area, in the wake of the push back against Rover Critical Minerals’ initial proposal to drill near Ash Meadows has been received by some members of the tribe and Amargosa Valley residents as a redeclaration of war. Residents of both communities are once again concerned how exploratory drilling or future open-pit mining might affect their long-term water security in a basin already exhibiting signs of significant groundwater overdraft.

Though the mining company’s plans remain uncertain, the communities and coalition remain resolved in urgently seeking a mineral withdrawal for public lands within Amargosa Valley. This would provide the communities with a reprieve of up to 20 years from new mineral entry. The reprieve would thus provide an opportunity to meaningfully and collaboratively discuss how to pursue the long-term water security of this portion of the Amargosa River watershed. Limiting the possibility for drastically affecting groundwater through extraction practices gone awry would be a meaningful first step on a longer road to sustainable groundwater use.

In our modern context, opportunities to take actions informed by traditional ecological knowledge, by science, and by robust and authentic bi-partisan community support are something of a rarity, perhaps as rare as the species of endemic life that find their homes in the springs and wetlands of Ash Meadows. These iconic desert lands, with their storied rural communities and exceedingly unique biodiversity, are threads in the fabric of our American identity and not worth risking in the pursuit of any mineral. No new ghost towns, ghost wetlands, or ghost rivers in Nye County.

Mason Voehl is an activist and writer representing the Amargosa Conservancy as its Executive Director. Over the last decade, Mason has cultivated a love affair with the American West through the  mediums of climbing, backpacking, and general rambling with his wife Sarah and two dogs. Masons essays on human-land relations have been featured in The Dark Mountain Project, Climbing Magazine, and the Black Mountain Radio podcast.