THACKER PASS UPDATE/REFLECTIONS by Will Falk
This past week, we got through most of the remaining court deadlines (at least for the next few weeks) in the two Thacker Pass cases we’re involved in. The first case is the lawsuit we filed on behalf of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony against the Bureau of Land Management for permitting the mine without adequately consulting with regional tribes about the mine. The second case is a defense in the bureaucratic courts of the Interior Board of Land Appeals against the $49, 890.13 fine BLM issued against us for allowing outhouses to be built in Thacker Pass, so people – especially Native American elders – could use the bathroom while engaging in ceremony. We must get a ruling in the Interior Board of Land Appeals before we can appeal the fine to a real judge. There will still be oral arguments in the RSIC case that everyone can listen to in August or September most likely and a decision on the RSIC case mostly likely in September or October.
When Max Wilbert and I founded the protest camp in Thacker Pass (Peehee mu’huh in Paiute) back on January 15, 2021, we wanted to offer something like a real-time commentary on our day-to-day organizing efforts to share the lessons we learned during this campaign with the broader movement. We also wanted to show that there’s nothing magical in starting a campaign like this. We decided we were going to devote our lives to stopping that mine and figure it out as we went.
I’m coming up for air and wanted to share a couple thoughts.
1. If any of the plaintiffs who have sued BLM for permitting the Thacker Pass mine win, then all “winning” means is that the judge will direct Lithium Nevada Corp. (the mine’s sponsor) and BLM to correct the original mistakes they made in the permitting process. If Lithium Nevada and BLM correct those mistakes (and after Lithium Nevada and its investors have sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into this project it is virtually certain they will correct these mistakes), then Lithium Nevada will be granted their permit and the mine will proceed.
Under American law, with precious few exceptions, Congress has designated mining to be the highest and best use of public land. And, yes, mining is considered a better use of public land than Native American religious uses or public recreational uses. So, mining corporations are entitled to mine public land if they simply agree to follow the applicable regulations, which are never strong enough to protect the natural world and are only strong enough to protect humans from the worst forms of pollution.
I do believe that, without the lawsuits, the Thacker Pass mine would be much farther along in terms of physical construction and destruction of the land required for that construction than it is today. So, in that sense, the lawsuits have at least given the creatures in Thacker Pass and Thacker Pass, herself, an extra year or two of life. However, when we say “American law will not protect the natural world in any meaningful way” that is quite literally true for mines on federally-managed public land.
2. One of the battles I’ve fought within myself throughout this whole campaign is managing my personal mental and physical health while fighting the campaign. My thoughts on this may change, but right now, there are so few people willing or capable to devote their lives to these kinds of campaigns that those of us who are willing and capable really don’t have the luxury of prioritizing our health. Yes, I think, pragmatically, we must manage our health in a manner where our health does not prevent us from fighting day-in and day-out for months on end.
However, when places like Thacker Pass are truly on death row, waiting for their execution, I realized that, unless an over-zealous cop or mine proponent lost his or her mind and attacked me, working on this campaign – even 70 or 80 hours a week – was not going to kill me. My life might be hell while drafting legal briefs weekly. But, that kind of hell is truly a metaphoric hell compared to you and your whole extended family being murdered, as is the case for the sage grouse, kangaroo rats, sage brush, golden eagles, etc. in Thacker Pass. There’s burn out and then there’s someone blowing up your home to replace it with an 1100 acre, 400 feet deep open pit. There’s stress and then there’s someone toxifying the water you depend on for life for the next 300 years.
I’m not writing this to make anyone feel guilty. I’m trying to start an honest and frank conversation about why the environmental movement is losing so badly. There are millions of legitimate reasons why people cannot devote their lives to protecting what’s left of the natural world. There are millions of illegitimate ones, too. At the end of the day, or perhaps I should say, at the end of life on Earth, it will not matter what our reasons were for failing one way or the other. This is a terrible truth to confront. But it is, I believe, the truth.
There have been so many times throughout the Thacker Pass campaign where I became confused, where I felt utterly empty, where things felt so hard and I absolutely dreaded sitting my ass down at my computer to get back to work. I gained lots of practice in listing my own reasons why my health would be better served if I stepped away from the campaign. I felt very guilty about this. I asked myself: Shouldn’t I feel more pride in this work? More satisfaction? Shouldn’t the plain knowledge that I’m doing the right thing carry me through?
There have definitely been times when I felt proud, when I felt fulfilled while fighting as hard as I could. But, most of the time, the work is simply really really hard. There’s no amount of self-care that can change that. You manage your health as best you can but I think the key is strength of will. You wake up and decide you’re going to fight as hard as you can and that’s that.
Meanwhile, we decide to fight with the knowledge that most of the time, without more people willing to mobilize for more direct tactics, without more people willing to devote their lives to these campaigns, we’re going to lose these campaigns.
I recognize that this isn’t exactly a great advertisement for encouraging more people to engage more seriously in land defense. My hope, though, is that if your love is fierce enough for the natural world that you can commit to devoting your life to fights like the Thacker Pass campaign, then when you encounter the confusion, despair, stress, burnout, and emptiness that I’ve experienced, you’ll recognize those feelings as a natural part of fighting a war we were never meant to fight. And, that you will not, will never, quit.
Photo of the stars over Thacker Pass by Max Wilbert.