By Will Durkin

Published July, 2023

If you were standing on Rhyolite Ridge in Nevada on September 12, 2020, it would have felt hot. Ninety-two degrees Fahrenheit hot. On this far western edge of the Great Basin, the largest North American watershed with no outlet, with the sun blasting and your feet shuffling across shattered plates of a chalk-white rock, you’d likely come across a delicate, yellow-flowered perennial forb, buzzing with a frenzy of pollinators: Tiehm’s buckwheat. This sliver of public land in Esmeralda County, Nevada’s least populous region, is the only place on earth home to this buckwheat, Eriogonum tiehmii. Standing there that day, in the Silver Peak Range, you would have instead discovered holes where plants used to be—in fact, almost 60 percent of the only known global population was missing. The suspect? Ground-dwelling squirrels, some biologists speculated, but many conservationists pointed their fingers at the international mining corporation prospecting the site. You see, the entirety of this fuzzy-leafed, mat-forming buckwheat’s population is located on a highly prized deposit of searlesite, a lithium-boron ore left behind by an ancient Pleistocene lake. Lithium is an essential ingredient for green energy technology, and, from Maine to California, a 21st century gold rush is taking place to extract the element. Rhyolite Ridge happens to be one of the largest searlesite deposits in the world, guaranteeing a huge payout for the eager developers and offering political gain for domestic energy initiatives, putting the future of Eriogonum tiehmii on unstable ground.

I first heard of the heated story surrounding Tiehm’s buckwheat while living in Reno, 167 miles northwest of Rhyolite Ridge. Rodents blamed for digging up rare plants on a billion-dollar mine? This botanical whodunit immediately caught my interest. I was just finishing my first field season in Nevada, and, having only moved to the Battle Born state from the Green Mountains a few months prior, I was still getting used to the cattle, feral horses, and cowboy hats dappling the treeless landscape. I was working as a contractor for the Bureau of Land Management, surveying plants and digging soil pits in rugged and remote rangelands across the state. I grew increasingly fond of the Eriogonum genus over the field season, recreationally collecting different specimens in my plant press and even acquiring the nickname “Buckwheat Bill” from my field crew. Their miniature six-petaled flowers in dense ball-like clusters, often a sulfuric yellow or rosy white and perched on long stalks rising from blue-green leaves, charmed me.

To Ioneer, the Australian company mining the site, this buckwheat was not charming. It was standing in the way of their proposed 2,300-acre open pit mine at only six inches tall. Since the discovery of lithium at Rhyolite Ridge in 2017, Ioneer has been investing tens of millions of dollars into the project. This mine was expected to turn out enough “white gold,” or lithium, to allow production of 370,000 electric vehicle batteries annually for over half a century, increasing U.S. electric vehicle manufacturing by nearly 90 percent, until a whistleblower inside the BLM alerted local conservationists to a blatant lack of federal oversight. In late 2019, buckwheat advocates, worried that mining activities would continue without an environmental impact analysis, urged the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the plant under the Endangered Species Act. Ioneer promised to back off further exploration and, in an attempt to pass the buck on their buckwheat problem, funded research to see if the plant could be moved to a different site. Their research only confirmed that Tiehm’s buckwheat is edaphic to the searlesite of Rhyolite Ridge, meaning, over the course of its evolution, it has specially adapted to the unique heavy-metal soil conditions on the site. It simply cannot live anywhere else on earth. Ironically, the lithium-boron minerals that gave rise to Eriogonum tiehmii may also be the reason for its demise.

Almost four years of public land controversy boiled to a head, that September morning in 2020, when botanists came across more than half of the Tiehm’s buckwheat population destroyed. Federal biologists suggested the culprit was thirsty rodents, given the recent drought. They collected DNA from the root nubs like crime- scene detectives. Conservationists called it a calculated conspiracy, cataloging photos of what looked like human footprints near the unplugged plants and roots perfectly cut by the mouth of a spade. Ioneer clapped back, blaming conservationists for peddling propaganda and trying to meddle with the project. Even botanists from the Eriogonum Society who built their careers studying these plants were doubtful of the rodent theory, having never seen that happen to wild buckwheat, especially given the magnitude of the disappearance.



Representing 0.002 percent of the earth’s crust, lithium is used for the batteries in our smartphones, the laptop I type this on, solar energy storage, and all the electric vehicles on the roads. The U.S. produces less than 1 percent of the global lithium supply, all from one small mine in Nevada a few miles south of the Silver Peak Range, while 90 percent comes from Australia, Chile, and China. As global lithium extraction skyrockets, quadrupling between 2012 and 2022, the supply gap deepens further from the rate of demand— the current administration has their eyes set on increasing electric vehicle and battery manufacturing to achieve domestic energy independence under President Biden’s ambitious American Battery Materials Initiative.

As I see it, the United States faces two crises with lithium extraction: climate change and species extinction. In the curious case of Eriogonum tiehmii vs. lithium mining, how can we choose? The extirpation of this species by uninhibited mineral extraction at Rhyolite Ridge will allow the U.S. to grow its current lithium production by over 1,000 percent, increasing our capacity to mitigate climate change and help save other vulnerable species just like the buckwheat. On the other hand, saving this species might continue to enable a poorly regulated global market and long-distance transportation of lithium, emitting more fossil fuels as well as stoking American NIMBY hypocrisy. And yet, even if this mine is going full bore, the U.S. will still only control mere pebbles of the global supply of lithium compared to the mountains of reserves that other countries hold. Will this mine in Nevada make enough difference to warrant endangering a rare species? After all, once the Teslas of the world are drained of their lithium juice, where do all the benefits of green energy go? The further I dig into this story, the more I feel that upending Rhyolite Ridge is a façade of sustainability and a greenwashed political and marketing stunt.

After years of litigation and feud, Tiehm’s buckwheat was finally listed under the Endangered Species Act in December of 2022, codifying protection of this Nevadan endemic to the utmost degree the federal government can offer—right? Not exactly. Even though a 4.6-acre protective bubble is delineated around the buckwheat, mining operations could still proceed just over the line. The BLM and Ioneer are currently in the Environmental Impact Statement phase of the NEPA process, and the proposed maps of disturbance activities in their draft report show quarrying, facilities storage, and road construction within 30 feet of the habitat-exclusion zone. This battle-born victory for biodiversity felt short-lived to frustrated conservationists, who believe that mining operations on the ridge will lead to the demise of Eriogonum tiehmii from the introduction of invasive species and disruption of monophagous pollinators who exclusively feed on the buckwheat. Elsewhere in Nevada, a similar lithium land debate is happening 280 miles north of Esmeralda County in Thacker Pass. There, a 5,700-acre lithium mine just broke ground in March, despite years of ap- peals to the courts citing violations of Indigenous land rights, groundwater pollution, and destruction of habitat for the greater sage-grouse, an already fiercely debated species in population decline. The U.S. Department of Energy and the automotive industry have their eyes set on Nevadan lithium, with General Motors investing $650 million into Thacker Pass and the Department of Energy promising $700 million to Ioneer for the development of Rhyolite Ridge.

It’s Sunday, April 23, and I broke my phone. It hit the floor at a moment of wrangling this storyline and my morals of personal lithium use. My phone’s demise came as no surprise, as a hand-me-down from an old roommate three years prior, but all smartphones, like all the batteries in electric vehicles, are temporary. Why should we accept permanent extinction of a species or destruction of a landscape for an ephemeral energy solution? I feel bad for Eriogonum tiehmii, and other species like it in the wake of the lithium wave—caught in the middle of a land fight between fevered conservationists, federal policy initiatives, and dubious international corporations. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in favor of sustainable technology development, but instead of diving headfirst into this sea of green energy potential, we should be taking time to fully understand the impacts of lithium and other rare mineral extraction. What is the point of a sustainable future if there is nothing left to sustain? Despite being 2,300 miles away, I feel as if I am lost on Rhyolite Ridge, scrambling on plates of searlesite, loving Tiehm’s buckwheat even as I decide to buy another lithium-powered phone.

Photograph of Charlotte Cadow.


About the Author

Will Durkin (Cohort AM, ‘24) likes to go birding and play rugby, sometimes at the same time.