To the west of the northern Nevada town of Orovada (population 155), State Route 293 cuts onto public lands near Thacker Pass, a section of high desert in the caldera of an extinct super-volcano. Around mile marker 20, an unassuming dirt road detours into the hills, where protesters have been camped out at the site of a proposed lithium mine for the past eight months. When I visited the camp in August, the air was thick with California wildfire smoke.
Within 10 minutes of my arrival, a group of Indigenous activists from the West Coast showed up with donated supplies. This was just one stop on their way up to Minnesota, where more than 700 demonstrators had recently been arrested for blocking traffic, chaining themselves to equipment, and other acts of civil disobedience aimed at stopping Enbridge Energy from replacing the Line 3 crude oil pipeline that runs from Alberta, Canada, to Wisconsin. After a round of pleasantries, campers and their visitors shuffled into a human chain to move food, medical supplies, and water into a storage tent.
Like the fight to stop Line 3, the encampment at Thacker Pass is just one front in a struggle against destructive industrial development. Significant inter-tribal organizing networks grew out of protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in 2016 and 2017, and have since supported militant environmental activism across the United States and Canada. “We knew that Standing Rock was something new in the making,” said Thomas Joseph, an organizer and Hoopa Valley Tribe member from California. “A lot of Indigenous tribes have stories of this time. In English, we would call it ‘prophecy.’ We were waiting for something to ignite that, so when Standing Rock lit up, we knew that was it. It’s time to move.”
Indigenous activists, radical environmentalists, and regional nonprofits have taken leading roles in opposing Thacker Pass Lithium Mine, but unexpected allies have also emerged from the conservative local community. The Trump administration’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) granted the project its final permit in January 2021, rushing to deliver an Environmental Impact Statement before Joe Biden took office. The development is still on hold, as several permits remain snarled in legal challenges. But whatever the outcome of this battle, its underlying dynamics—which pit global finance capital against an international protest movement able to tap into local concerns—offer strategic lessons for the growing number of activists willing to confront extractive projects head on.
The 1,000-acre Thacker Pass Lithium Mine is anticipated to operate for 46 years and, at full production, could produce a quarter of today’s global lithium demand. Environmental costs will be felt locally, but far larger economic forces are driving the project forward. As world leaders recognize the necessity of transitioning away from fossil fuels, the need for renewable energy has created a spike in demand for lithium, a core component of rechargeable batteries for cell phones, laptops, cameras, and electric vehicles. Today, most commercial lithium comes from deposits in Australia, Chile, Argentina, and China. Trade-war hawks are especially anxious about China dominating the lithium market, and the United States is sitting on untapped deposits accounting for roughly 10 percent of all proven reserves. Geopolitical calculations have thus combined with progressive demands for green-energy investments to generate an urgency for a mine that activists say threatens wildlife, communities, and businesses.
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While proponents frame the project as a strategic asset to shore up American viability in an emerging market, it is actually the work of a Canadian corporation, Lithium Americas, operating through a US-based subsidiary. The company said in a statement that it is developing the area “responsibly and will ultimately build a project that creates hundreds of family-supporting jobs, helps make America competitive in the lithium market, and manufactures essential materials to combat the climate crisis.”
Thacker Pass’s lithium is concentrated in a soft, sedimentary clay, which Lithium Americas intends to process with an experimental technique that involves burning hundreds of tons of sulfur daily. According to the BLM’s impact statement, the mine will consume an average of 11,300 gallons of diesel fuel every day, generating noise pollution and pumping smog into the air. Some of these impacts could potentially spill into the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation, which is a 45-minute drive from the proposed project.
Many environmentalists see lithium-based renewables as essential to addressing climate change, but as historic droughts ravage the West, Nevada’s most precious resource may be water—and opponents warn that Thacker Pass Lithium Mine could devastate nearby aquifers. The 400-foot-deep mine would extend well below the water table, requiring workers to pump out groundwater to keep the pit dry. The BLM acknowledges that the project will affect groundwater reserves and drop the water table, but advocates and an independent hydrologist worry that the agency’s statement downplays the risk. They argue the project could make the surrounding land uninhabitable to native vegetation and endanger local fauna like prairie falcons, sage grouse, and a rare snail species that only lives in 13 nearby springs. The mining process could also disperse heavy metals like arsenic, antimony, and uranium into the water supply.
The earliest activists to arrive at camp say Thacker Pass Lithium Mine illustrates a poverty of imagination in Green New Deal proposals built around narrow goals like reducing carbon emissions while affirming wasteful consumer culture writ large. The problem, they argue, is not so much that lithium mining is uniquely harmful among industrial extraction processes, but that we cannot address climate change while maintaining industrial society’s present scale. In their view, sustainable industrial reform is a techno-utopian fiction, convincing the public that everything is under control while concealing ongoing ecological destruction.
Activists Max Wilbert and Will Falk set up the protest encampment to expose this contradiction in January 2021. “People would really like to think that we can solve global warming without fundamentally changing our society, but that’s not the reality,” said Wilbert. “Global warming is a symptom of our broken relationship with the planet. If we try to simply treat the symptom without understanding the underlying cause, we’re going to run into problems.”
Falk and Wilbert are both members of Deep Green Resistance (DGR), a radical movement that calls for direct action and “the targeted abolition of industrial civilization.” Lithium Americas declined to comment on the encampment or its organizers on the record, but according to a source familiar with the corporation’s PR strategy, they have been working to shape a public perception of the mine’s on-the-ground opposition as led by violent extremists, privately emphasizing the role of DGR members in the camp’s genesis.
DGR members have previously called for a network of “underground militants” to resist industrial projects, but the action at Thacker Pass is decidedly nonviolent. “If corporations and industries threaten water, we have the right to fight back,” said Wilbert. “When they try to turn that around, it’s the definition of insanity to me. It’s propaganda at its worst. I’m not an advocate of wanton violence.”
When I visited the camp, I did not meet any cartoonishly fringe anarchists. Wilbert himself acknowledged that the mine’s proponents likely genuinely believe that lithium extraction signals a meaningful step toward sustainability. Plus, DGR had willingly stepped to the side so Indigenous organizers could assume leadership. One long-term camper, a 32-year-old Duck Valley Shoshone-Paiute man named Gary McKinney, hinted at a mass awakening of tribal organizing power. “There’s that spirit calling us, that resurgence of solidarity,” he said, punctuating steady delivery with impassioned gesticulations. “That whirlwind is taking off and picking up the spirit again.”
Daranda Hinkey, a 23-year-old member of the nearby Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe, has been essential to that effort. Hinkey has been out at the site since February, alerting local Native people to the project and connecting it to broader Indigenous land struggles. She told, me, “We believe that protecting the land is protecting ourselves, the next generation, and the generation that passed on.”
While the action is largely fueled by tribal organizing power, the mine’s first legal challenge came from a rancher, Edward Bartell, who filed suit against the BLM and Lithium Americas within a month of the encampment’s founding. Bartell claims the BLM skirted the law in rushing a “one sided, deeply flawed, and incomplete” environmental impact statement under Ryan Zinke’s Department of the Interior downplaying the extent of likely effects on groundwater, streams, and a threatened species of trout. If the mine moves forward, Bartell is concerned that the surrounding area, including his grazing land, could become a polluted wasteland.
I met Bartell in the parking lot of a rural gas station, from which he led me to his land in a rumbling pickup. Recent droughts had cracked the pale earth, but greasewood shrubs and native wild rye fanned out in all directions, clinging to groundwater below. All of this vegetation is naturally irrigated, and Bartell believes that the aquifers giving these plants life would likely drain into a nearby production well, increasing the already elevated risk of wildfires, rendering the land incapable of supporting cattle, and ultimately destroying his livelihood. “We didn’t think it was that big of a deal at first, but they are constantly doing public relations to minimize [the mine] and make it appear smaller than it really is,” Bartell said of Lithium Americas. “We didn’t find out about how bad it was or how massive it was until the pandemic, so it was really difficult to get the word out.”
Bartell is not the only local who opposes the mine, but Lithium Americas does have supporters in the community. Humboldt County Manager Dave Mendiola, for example, told me that he welcomes the 300 long-term jobs that the project is estimated to bring. “Often in our community, kids will take off, because there are not the kinds of opportunities [here] that they would like.” Mendiola said that modern extraction techniques would create high-paying technical jobs that might keep ambitious young adults in the county.
It is an understandable viewpoint, but perhaps a naive one, as similar operations often bring outside contractors who populate sprawling “man camps.” These temporary, overwhelmingly male workforces can make housing unaffordable for locals and lead to spikes in drug use and violent crime. Julia Stern, editor-in-chief of the Immigration and Human Rights Law Review, has noted that Native women frequently experience violence from non-Native perpetrators, writing that “the potential for harm from ‘man camps’ is exacerbated when they are on or near Indigenous peoples’ lands.”
Environmental organizations Western Watersheds Project, Wildlands Defense, Great Basin Resource Watch, and Basin and Range Watch joined the legal challenge, alleging that the BLM failed to conduct a proper environmental assessment. “It was all about maximizing profits for a multinational mining company, at the expense of all the other values of the public land,” said Katie Fite, public lands director at WildLands Defense, of the BLM’s rushed review. “Essentially, [they believe] the West is there to be exploited by industry.”
A group of Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe descendants calling themselves People of Red Mountain also intervened in the litigation, claiming that Lithium Americas’ digging could disrupt cultural, religious, and historic sites. The stakes of this risk are dramatically illustrated in the story behind the Paiute name for Thacker Pass, Peehee mu’huh, or “rotten moon.”
“Our oral histories tell us that Peehee mu’huh was the site of a terrible massacre for our people,” said Hinkey, a member of People of Red Mountain, in a legal declaration in July 2021. According to this history, a band of Paiutes was staying in Thacker Pass, with their hunters on a trip in nearby Paradise Valley. On their way back to camp, the hunters smelled something horrible from a great distance. “When the hunters returned,” Hinkey told me, “they found their loved ones murdered, unburied, rotting, and with their entrails spread across the sage brush in a part of the pass shaped like a moon.”
This is perhaps the most detailed surviving account of a massacre in Thacker Pass, but others are contained in written history. Bill Haywood, a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), claimed in his autobiography to have met Native survivors of a 19th-century massacre there, as well as a traveling pensioner who allegedly helped perpetrate the terror. Falk, who is also attorney for the Indigenous plaintiffs, found another apparent reference to this attack in an 1868 diary entry describing the area. The diary claims that a group of US cavalry “attacked and whipped a body of Indians on Sept 12th 1865,” which would have been during the Snake Wars against regional Paiute and Shoshone peoples. “There are many Indian skulls and other remains to be found scattered over this junction,” it reads. Despite this, BLM has questioned the reliability of Paiute oral traditions, claiming in written arguments that the “only” massacre site identified near Thacker Pass is “at least” 15 miles away.
For 25 years before it became a reservation, McDermitt was a US military fort used in a series of violent confrontations with Native peoples. Hinkey explained in an interview that people from the reservation have stories from this time, preserved through oral history, of ancestors hiding from the US military in caves around Thacker Pass. “They’re scared of us,” she said of Lithium Americas. “The Fort McDermitt tribe were the last people in Nevada to be put on a reservation, so we’re fighters to the end.”
The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, a Nevada tribe with land 200 miles away, also joined the litigation, along with the Burns Paiute Tribe. “It’s not that we’re opposed to green energy,” said Arlan Melendez, chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. “But to gain green energy, do you really want to destroy the environment? You might gain something in the right hand, but you’re losing a lot in the left hand.”
These connections demonstrate a growing sense of shared purpose among tribes across the country. While in Thacker Pass, I met Ivan Bender, caretaker of the Hualapai Tribe’s Cholla Canyon Ranch in Arizona, where lithium exploration has already started to damage tribal water. He had come up to learn lessons to bring back down to Arizona. “DAPL got national attention. Many tribes went there,” Melendez said, “which started to open up a unity among the tribes to support one another around [issues like] mining and fracking.”
Earlier in the summer, this unity manifested in the “Red Road to DC,” a 2,000-mile trek by Native elders who visited contemporary battlegrounds like Standing Rock, Thacker Pass, Line 3, Enbridge Line 5 in northern Michigan, and Snake River in the Pacific Northwest, where Native protesters have pushed to remove dams that block salmon migration. The action concluded with a visit to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the only Native person in Biden’s cabinet. The Department of the Interior oversees the BLM, making her uniquely positioned to intervene in defense of Thacker Pass or other public lands.
Activists have approached Haaland as a singularly movable public official—to mixed success. “She is a Native person who has these morals, who has that background, and it’s almost talking to an aunt,” Hinkey said of Haaland. “I feel as if she is the only person who can stop this lithium mine, [but] we have been trying to get a hold of her. It seems she doesn’t have the ability to reach out to us.”
Judge Miranda Du, who is presiding over the ongoing litigation against the BLM and Lithium Americas, said she plans to release her decision by early 2022. If the mining company prevails in court, the camp will be its last obstacle.
The BLM appears to be trying to push the protesters out before a ruling is made. After the Native plaintiffs intervened in the lawsuit, the agency threatened camp organizers with a $49,890 fine for building several small structures, including a dugout toilet. According to a source familiar with Lithium Americas’ coordination with the local BLM office, the government agency has been keeping tabs on who is at the camp and feeding information back to Lithium Americas as the Canadian company weaves a counter-narrative about supposedly dangerous radicals. The local BLM office declined, through a public information officer, to comment on this or other law enforcement activity.
For his part, County Manager Mendiola spoke about the importance of trusting processes, regulatory assessments, and legal opinions, saying that people should accept the outcomes whatever they may be.
Several people at the camp suggested that stronger tribal consultation requirements might create a more humane system for development on public lands. Consultations are already required for government agencies to approve many projects, but they are usually perfunctory and without enforcement mechanisms. In the case of Thacker Pass, the BLM approved the mine after sending just three letters to the tribal councils of the Summit Lake, Fort McDermitt, and Winnemucca Indian Colony tribes, well before most members knew anything about the project. More potent, democratic, and enforceable consultation standards might have given the tribes greater leverage.
It is heartening to see land protection compel ranchers to lock arms with environmental and tribal activists, but it is also important to acknowledge that most major campaigns to emerge from the post–Standing Rock movement have failed. DAPL is still pumping oil, and, though Biden finally killed Keystone XL by executive order, oil transport by rail has expanded by more than that pipeline’s planned capacity. Activists at Thacker Pass understand the challenges ahead, but the camp’s mood was nonetheless one of jovial resolve—and an understanding that the movement is just getting started. “I do see optimism in the rising waves of radical direct-action movements,” DGR’s Wilbert said, “but we have a long way to go.”