Jennifer Solis

(Nevada Current) Conservation groups are calling on federal land managers to ban mineral claims on thousands of acres of land surrounding a treasured wildlife refuge in the Amargosa Desert.

Last summer, the Bureau of Land Management approved a lithium exploration project by Canada-based Rover Metals to drill up to 30 exploratory boreholes just north of the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, a critical wetland habitat that supports a dozen endangered and threatened species.

After intense public pushback, the agency pulled their approval of the project, but Rover Metals has not given up their plans.

In December, the Canada-based mining company submitted a new plan of operations for an exploratory drilling project with a smaller footprint to the Bureau of Land Management, Nevada division. If approved by federal land managers, the new operation would include drilling 20 boreholes north of the refuge up to 150 feet in depth or until groundwater is encountered.

“A delay is a win, and we held off Rover Metals long enough that now we can really develop this campaign in a more robust fashion,” said Patrick Donnelly, the Great Basin director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Conservation groups said they are not satisfied with the new plan, adding that the smaller footprint does not alleviate their original concerns.

“Several of these borehole sites are still within a few thousand feet of Fairbanks Spring, all of which are still located very close to the boundary of the refuge, and all of which still have the potential of intersecting groundwater in a way that could irreversibly impact the refuge,” said Mason Voehl, executive director at the Amargosa Conservancy, the group leading the charge for a mineral withdrawal.

A mineral withdrawal is a process that would ban new mining claims on public land surrounding Ash Meadows. However, the maneuver would not dissolve previous mining claims.

“This is the path we’ve identified,” Voehl said. “It is not a final destination by any means. This is one of the most minimal interventions we could seek in terms of safeguarding the refuge, but it would be a meaningful first step.”

Under federal law, the Department of the Interior has the authority to withdraw lands from mineral extraction for up to 20 years by approving an application for mineral withdrawal submitted by the managing agency. Mineral withdrawals can also be permanently secured through legislation passed by Congress and signed by the president.

While a temporary withdrawal under the Department of the Interior is not a permanent solution, Voehl said he believes it would greatly reduce mining companies’ interest in developing mining claims in the area.

“We would like to see the Department of the Interior really take the lead on this process, and at minimum secure that 20-year withdrawal to prevent new claims from being filed in the Ash Meadows region,” Voehl said.

Conservation groups have already gained support for a federal mineral withdrawal from local government.

Earlier this month, the Nye County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to approve a letter calling on the Department of the Interior and Congress to analyze and pursue a mineral withdrawal for public lands in the Ash Meadows area.

The county is also supporting a hydrological study to analyze the potential impacts to groundwater from mining activities on public lands surrounding the refuge. That study, conducted by Roux on behalf of The Nature Conservancy, is currently underway, said Voehl.

The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service listed groundwater “reduction and manipulation” within the central Amargosa Desert as a major threat to the Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish due to the level of connectivity between the aquifer fed springs in Ash Meadows.

Amargosa River, the lifeline of the refuge, runs below ground for much of its 180-mile course, but in the stretches that reach the surface, the river supports endemic species that depend entirely on springs fed by the fragile groundwater aquifers.

At least 26 species of plants and animals, including the Devil’s Hole pupfish, are only found in the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. It has the second highest concentration of endemic species found in the United States, according to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service.

Despite the desert’s lack of water, the Amergosa Basin is home to 11 endemic species of rare alkali wetlands plants, seven of which are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“These plants are incredibly vulnerable and are under high threat, in part due to threats to the groundwater,” said Naomi Fraga, the director of conservation programs at the California Botanic Garden.

The refuge has been federally protected since 1984, but the growing attention to the area by lithium companies has been a wake-up call for residents in surrounding communities who treasure the unique wetlands, sometimes called “the Galapagos of the desert,” said Voehl.

“We are hoping to secure strong public support from every corner that we can, to really demonstrate the public’s desire to see the agency’s work on an application for mineral withdrawal,” Voehl said. “The more we can show that support, especially from those that live here in the region, the stronger chance we have at motivating decision makers to get this process in motion urgently.”