On a cold, windy day in late October, in one of the most remote and least populated regions of the state, a half-dozen workers prepared to drill another test hole in the arid volcanic rock. They were looking for deposits of lithium, a metal that has become indispensable to smartphones and electric-vehicle batteries, and which geologists estimate is so abundant here that mining companies from around the world are vying for a chance to make the next big discovery. The workers doing the drilling were contracted by Ioneer, an Australian company that has already invested millions in exploring what it believes could be one of the largest lithium producers in the world with an estimated net value of nearly $2 billion.
Like almost all of the surrounding territory, this land is owned by the federal government and overseen by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management. I had come here because I had learned that the Rhyolite Ridge project was threatening a rare wildflower called Tiehm’s buckwheat that is not known to grow anywhere else in the world. Standing with me on the ridgeline overlooking the work site was Patrick Donnelly, the state director of the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group that over the past three years has established itself as one of the most determined—and successful—foes of the Trump administration’s efforts to accelerate mining and development on public lands. The Rhyolite Ridge project boundary sits atop the plant’s tiny 21-acre habitat and from what Donnelly could see, the work was already having a damaging impact. Donnelly pointed to newly graded roads on the site, including a path that cut through two of the main populations of the flower. Three weeks before, Donnelly had filed a petition with federal and state officials to have the plant listed as an endangered species. Now, on a holiday weekend, the mine was buzzing and Donnelly was livid. He had seen nothing like this level of activity on three visits over the summer.
Mining companies are being allowed exploit public lands in Nevada with little oversight from the Department of Interior.
One Australian company, Ioneer, is doing exploratory work and has proposed a mine on land that is home to an endangered wildflower that grows nowhere else in the world.
More broadly, the Bureau of Land Management is allowing industry to skirt rules and regulations designed to protect fragile landscapes and vulnerable species.
A whistleblower from the agency’s Bureau of Land Management accuses the agency of “a culture of lawlessness” and turning the region into a “clearinghouse for federal permits."
“What’s changed?” he asked. “Since September 1, well, we submitted our petition.” But rather than BLM limiting exploration activity at the site as Donnelly had hoped, the work appeared to have significantly expanded. “It’s like BLM is doubling down,” he said.
The Bureau of Land Management—BLM—approves the mining permits on all federal land. Since its creation in 1946, the agency has had a dual mission to balance the demands of industry and environmental protection. In this part of Nevada, that job falls to the BLM’s Battle Mountain district office, located more than 250 miles away. But according to a sweeping whistleblower complaint filed on October 4 by Dan Patterson, a five-year BLM employee and obtained by POLITICO and Type Investigations, the Battle Mountain office has repeatedly disregarded its own environmental rules and regulations to fast-track permits on public land. The historic antipathy toward federal oversight common to this region, combined with a presidential administration that has announced its hostility to decades of environmental law, has left public lands especially vulnerable.
“This ... is more than disagreement with the decisions of his superiors,” the attorney with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, who is representing Patterson, wrote in the complaint, “but stems from a sincere belief that the laws of the United States are being disregarded for the professional expediency of his superiors and the benefit of private parties, and that a culture of lawlessness has been engendered.”
According to Patterson’s complaint, the BLM district office has, over the past several years, ignored longstanding requirements that stem from the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act; approved mines and drilling without adequate review, turning the region into a “clearinghouse for federal permits”; and taken personnel off mining inspections in order to expedite development. In one case, according to the complaint, a mining engineer was removed from the review of a high priority open pit gold mine after making a recommendation to mitigate the long-term effects of toxic wastewater, which the company opposed because of cost. In another case, a group of well-connected families had been allowed to build recreational cabins on public land under the guise that they are actively mining. The whistleblower’s complaint also alleges that a lithium mine in Silver Peak, on the other side of Rhyolite Ridge, has illegally expanded onto BLM land without obtaining the necessary permits. Since raising questions about the district’s conduct, Patterson says he has faced retribution from his supervisors and is now on leave without pay.
The Department of the Interior’s inspector general is evaluating the allegations in the whistleblower’s complaint. In an emailed statement, BLM officials said they “stand ready to assist and provide information to the Office of the Special Counsel or the DOI Office of the Inspector General if asked.” Until that investigation is complete, BLM said it could not “comment on the truth or accuracy of the whistleblower complaint’s allegations or of Politico’s characterization of such allegations.”
But of all Patterson’s allegations, the Rhyolite Ridge project—which pits a foreign mining corporation against a handful of environmentalists defending a rare, ankle-high wildflower—epitomizes how vulnerable the regulatory apparatus has become to pressure from the Trump administration. In 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order on minerals deemed critical to national security, including lithium, and called for “increasing activity at all levels of the supply chain.” Specifically, the order directed federal agencies to streamline the leasing and permitting processes. In July 2019, while visiting a major gold mine in Nevada, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who has made a point of reducing the time required to conduct environmental reviews, said the mining industry’s gross domestic product has increased 39 percent since Trump took office. In an interview with an Australian business publication, Bernard Rowe, managing director of Ioneer, the Australian company behind the Rhyolite Ridge project, said, “This designation of critical minerals that President Trump introduced a while back started the ball rolling in terms of streamlining permit process times and requirements, and our project has certainly been a beneficiary of that.”
BLM officials in western Nevada have enabled Ioneer to reap those benefits by the favorable way they have chosen to interpret and enforce existing environmental laws. Mining companies can avoid long and costly environmental reviews during their exploration phase as long as they disturb no more than five acres. But in this case Ioneer filed two separate notices, both just under the five-acre limit, about a mile and a half apart but within the boundaries of the same project. This, the whistleblower alleges, violates federal regulations that prohibit operators from so-called “segmenting” in order to avoid a preliminary environmental review.
Rowe disputes the whistleblower’s claims and says the filing of the two exploration notices was justified and that the project boundary was not firmly established at the time. “We did that based on our view that this was not segmentation,” Rowe said.
Rowe also underscored that his company is committed to sustainable development and that the project is part of a larger effort to transition away from the use of fossil fuels, particularly in the transportation sector, which is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. The company also says it will protect the rare plant and has taken measures to ensure its survival.
But conservation groups like Patrick Donnelly’s, which is not categorically opposed to lithium mining, contend that the exploration work is already damaging the plant’s habitat. Conservationists fear that if the 640-acre proposed mine is ultimately approved, it will drive the buckwheat to extinction. The petition to have a plant listed as an endangered species can take years, even decades. Meanwhile, Ioneer says it hopes to begin production by 2023, and hopes to complete its mandatory environmental review in one year, a timetable that is unusually fast for a project that has raised questions about the survival of an endemic species.
Arnold Tiehm, who discovered the buckwheat in 1983 and for whom it is named, says the plant’s existence is precarious. “You could wipe the buckwheat out with a bulldozer in a couple of hours,” he said. “It’s that simple.”
When Ioneer filed its notices of exploration in 2018, Dan Patterson was the only environmental protection specialist in the Tonopah field office (BLM says there were four environmental protection specialists in the larger Battle Mountain District). Patterson was in charge of compliance at an office that oversaw roughly 6 million acres of public land, what Patterson says is an unusually large range by BLM standards. Nevada alone accounts for nearly half of the active mining claims that BLM oversees. The territory overseen by Patterson’s office included hundreds of mines, each of which he was able to visit once or twice in any given year.
Since 2017, Patterson says, the agency has permitted “far more development on public lands than the agency could ever monitor or enforce. And that’s something everybody should be concerned about.”
Patterson grew up in Michigan and studied resource management at Michigan State University before moving to Arizona in 1994. He has lived out west ever since. In 2008, Patterson was elected to the Arizona Legislature, where he served on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee but was forced to resign three years later after a House ethics investigation found he “verbally abuses, assaults, and harasses his colleagues.” Patterson has publicly and strenuously disputed the investigation’s findings.
One of his most recent jobs was at the Center for Biological Diversity, where he was a public lands campaigner and director of the group’s deserts program. When he transferred to BLM in 2015, he hoped he could bring his environmental expertise to bear on one of the agency’s busiest field offices. He quickly earned a reputation for being a staunch defender of public lands who was willing to work closely with local environmental advocates. He was not shy about pointing out violations (he had also worked for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a watchdog group) and what he saw as his superiors’ reluctance to stand up to the mining interests.
The Rhyolite Ridge project was especially troubling to Patterson. In June 2018, after an initial inspection of the site, Patterson learned that Tiehm’s buckwheat was on BLM’s list of “sensitive species”—plants or animals that require heightened attention to prevent them from becoming threatened or endangered. In fact, BLM had known about the plant’s existence and location for years.
After his first visit, Patterson, concerned that BLM was not doing enough to protect the plant’s habitat, sent Donnelly an email on June 15 with photos of the buckwheat and the project area. Patterson describes himself as a “desert plant geek” who felt compelled to share some information about what was unfolding at Rhyolite Ridge.
“It was basically like an FYI: ‘Have you heard about Tiehm’s buckwheat?’” Patterson said.
He hadn’t. Donnelly reached out to the small handful of botanists and other officials familiar with the Rhyolite Ridge site. Scrappy and outspoken, Donnelly and the Center for Biological Diversity have challenged the Trump administration’s push to expand oil and gas development and mining in the state. Recently, the center scored a major victory against the administration’s attempt to overhaul a sage grouse conservation plan that had been enacted during the Obama administration. As a result of the lawsuit, Nevada pulled more than 300,000 acres of public land from a recent oil and gas lease sale.
One of the experts whom Donnelly consulted about Tiehm’s buckwheat was Jim Morefield, a botanist with the state department of conservation and natural resources, who had first surveyed the Rhyolite Ridge site in 1995. Morefield wrote that the plant, a profligate seed producer that provides nourishment for small mammals and pollinators, already met the definition of a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. He strongly suggested that BLM and the state of Nevada do more to protect it, including removing habitat from future mineral exploration. “Immediate and aggressive measures are needed to prevent its extinction and to protect it sufficiently to avoid formal listing,” Morefield wrote. But Morefield says he is not aware that the state acted on his recommendation.
Ioneer knew the plant was there as well. It had even hired a contractor, EM Strategies, to conduct baseline surveys of the plant to determine whether there were additional undiscovered populations and to assess the overall habitat. Like previous researchers, EM Strategies found that the buckwheat’s entire range is limited to Rhyolite Ridge.
Despite the widespread awareness of the vulnerable plant, BLM approved both of Ioneer’s requests for notices on October 19, 2018. The first work began later that month.
Around that same time, Patterson flagged a second reason for concern about the project. He told his supervisor that he believed the filing of more than one notice was a violation of federal regulations that prohibit segmenting. “The idea that they were not related—that they were two separate projects—it didn’t pass the smell test,” Patterson told me. “In my view, that was segmenting, a recommendation that was not followed by management.”
Rowe, who has 13 years of experience working in western Nevada, said the two notices, though part of the same project area, were geologically and geographically distinct. He also said the project area at that time was more of a concept, not a hard boundary. A BLM map from June 2018 clearly shows the project area encompassing both notices but Ioneer maintains that it was not relevant since it was not part of a formal plan and was subject to change and refinement. Rowe said it is common practice in Nevada for BLM to approve more than one notice in cases like this.
Roger Flynn, who is the founding director of the nonprofit Western Mining Action Project and teaches mining law at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said the fact that this has become standard practice is precisely the problem. “I’ve been fighting mines since the early ’90s,” he said. “My gut is that this happens all the time, but it’s hard to tell.”
After drilling more than 40 test holes, Ioneer has finished its exploration work, concluding that the mine has the potential to produce more than 20,000 tons of lithium annually. The company expects to begin full mining operations in 2023. But the fate of the rare plant is unresolved. Actual mining on the 640-acre mine and related construction could have a far greater impact on the buckwheat. Ioneer has not yet submitted its plan of operations, and Rowe would not specify how much of the plant’s habitat would be affected. “It’s certainly less than 50 percent,” he said. Ioneer says it is investing in efforts to propagate and possibly transplant the buckwheat, but botanists say there’s a great deal of uncertainty about whether such a strategy would succeed.
“We’re quite comfortable in saying, to the absolute best of our knowledge, we did not disturb any Tiehm’s buckwheat in any of the work we’ve done out at that site,” Rowe told me recently.
In June 2019, about a year after he first learned of the buckwheat, Donnelly drove over 200 miles to the Tonopah field office to review Ioneer’s exploration notices. At the office he had an hourlong conversation with Earl Numinen, the assistant field manager, and reviewed some of the case files for the lithium mine. Donnelly says Numinen was “fairly transparent” and that he was able to access some of the records related to the project.
About a month later, on July 8, Donnelly received an unexpected phone call from Perry Wickham, who had recently been named acting field manager of the Tonopah office (Wickham was appointed June 9). Wickham wanted to know what his interest in the project was, Donnelly said. Donnelly had filed two Freedom of Information Act requests related to the project, a normal practice—Donnelly has filed around 50 FOIAs in Nevada in the past three years—but he wouldn’t have expected the office’s top manager to respond directly. According to Donnelly, Wickham told him, “You don’t deal with Earl anymore. You deal with me.”
In an emailed statement about the exchange with Donnelly, a BLM spokesperson said, “As the Tonopah Field Manager, Mr. Wickham has the authority to determine points of contact for information regarding projects in his office.”
Since that call, Donnelly says (and emails from Wickham to Donnelly confirm) that Wickham has tried to limit his ability to access public records, an apparent violation of BLM protocol.
Patterson’s own troubles began around the same time Wickham took over the office.
On July 9, the day after Wickham phoned Donnelly, Patterson returned to work from a two-week assignment as a public information officer for a wildfire in Alaska and was immediately served with a five-day proposed suspension stemming from an argument he’d had with another BLM employee in early June. Patterson acknowledges that he had an argument but said it was a routine dispute that didn’t merit disciplinary action. Patterson had received a superior rating on his performance evaluation in fiscal year 2018.
Patterson thinks the suspension had more to do with the Center for Biological Diversity records requests than the argument. While he was still in Alaska, Patterson had a conversation with the district manager who pressed him on whether he knew anything about the requests. Patterson said he wasn’t aware of the FOIA, though Donnelly had informed him of the request months before in a text message. Later, in a meeting with Wickham, Patterson said he was asked about his previous work for the center.
“They’ve come in here on multiple occasions to look at particular files, specific files,” Wickham told Patterson in an audio recording Patterson provided to POLITICO. “I mean they don’t just come in here and say, ‘Gee, can we just have a random check of files.’ They want specific files.”
Patterson had numerous privileges revoked. He says he was pulled from his work as an information officer on wildfires, which he had done for several years and felt was an important part of the agency’s mission. He also says his telework privileges were taken away, which meant he’d have to spend an extra night in Tonopah and would have only weekends with his family, who lived near Las Vegas about 250 miles away. In an emailed statement BLM said, “Telework and participation in collateral duties related to supporting wildland fire operations are at the discretion of the employee’s supervisor.”
Eventually, Patterson was placed on administrative leave with pay, but that was suspended after two weeks. He remains on leave without pay and has not returned to work. About a month and a half after he was placed on leave, he filed the whistleblower complaint.
“I feel like I’ve been kind of run out of town,” Patterson said.
Early one morning in October, I picked up Patterson in my rental truck and we headed south out of Tonopah to view some of the sites included in his complaint. It was a cloudless day and there were few cars on the road. In the center of town, Patterson noticed Perry Wickham’s white Ford F-150 driving in the opposite direction.
When I glanced in my rearview mirror the truck had already turned around and proceeded to follow us for several miles outside of Tonopah. Patterson suggested I pull off the highway onto an unpaved county road so we could discuss our plans for the day. Wickham’s truck continued on. But about five minutes later, Wickham sped past us, kicking up a cloud of dust and gravel.
Through a BLM spokesperson, Wickham said he followed me out of curiosity after seeing one of his employees riding with a reporter. The previous afternoon I had stopped by the Tonopah field office to review case files and, though Wickham wasn’t there, he instructed his staff to tell me that I needed permission from the state office to access records, which is not standard practice. After about an hour, I was told to leave the office. A BLM spokesperson said it was an “unfortunate misunderstanding” and that the public and media should be permitted to request files from an office at any time.
Patterson and I drove east toward the Kawich Range to a series of remote 9,000-foot peaks where Patterson, in his complaint, said a group of “politically and economically influential” families had taken advantage of mining claims to build illegal cabins. It was called the Five Jokers mine. One of the original Five Jokers was Roy Neighbors, an influential Nye County administrator, who had also served in the Nevada Legislature. Patterson had seen photos of the cabins in the BLM case file but had never actually visited the site. According to Patterson’s complaint, it was well known among BLM management in the Battle Mountain district that the claims were being abused and had even become a “running joke” within the office.
The state road we were driving on is known as the “Extraterrestrial Highway” because of its proximity to Area 51, the government owned site, where numerous people have claimed they’ve seen alien activity or UFOs. As we headed north on a narrow access road into the mountains the sagebrush desert transitioned to a forest of pinyon and juniper trees. We passed by a stake marking a BLM “Wilderness Study Area,” which pleased Patterson, though he couldn’t recall the last time a BLM employee had been out here. Finally, we came around a bend and saw a piece of plywood nailed to the base of a tree: “5 Jokers Mining Co LLC,” with a phone number below it. The road became too steep to drive up, so we continued on foot for a mile or so passing old legacy mines where there were no signs of recent earth disturbance and abandoned processing equipment that had become overgrown with vegetation. Near the top of the ridgeline we came to a gate with a “no trespassing” sign on it.
In front of us were two modern cabins occupying some of the most remote and breathtaking real estate in this part of Nevada. Scattered about the property were a trailer with flat tires and an old Ford F-250 with a duct-taped driver’s side window and “5 Joker’s Mine” written on the door. There were 400-gallon water tanks with open spigots that had been recently emptied; generators to supply the cabins with running water and electricity; solar panels and an outdoor shower. There were globe lights on a wraparound deck perched on the steep hillside. Nearby Patterson pointed out large metal drums of gasoline or fuel oil. One labeled “leaded racing gasoline” was bloated, indicating it could possibly rupture. According to Patterson, who is trained in handling hazardous materials, storing fuel oil in this manner at active mines is prohibited and remediation is typically required. Patterson took his pocket knife out and dug around in the soil next to the pump where large amounts of fuel had leaked. It wasn’t clear how deep it went. Patterson reminded me that this was all public land; that the Five Jokers weren’t paying any rent or property taxes—just a $155 annual fee to keep the claims active; and that there were no zoning or building standards that they had to abide by.
Sami Neighbors, the daughter-in-law of one of the original owners, files all of the paperwork for the company. (Five Jokers Mining LLC was dissolved in 2018 and transferred to Miles Neighbors, one of Roy Neighbors’ sons. Permits now refer to it as the Five Jokers Mine Project.) Sami Neighbors said all of the records are public and could be accessed through the BLM office in Reno. When asked whether mining was still taking place on Five Jokers claims in the Kawich range, she said “yes” but wouldn’t provide any additional information. The allegations made in the whistleblower complaint were news to her, she said. “We’re compliant,” she said. “That’s the crux of it to me.”
The Five Jokers claim, said Patterson, was emblematic of the way BLM operates in this part of Nevada and much of the rest of the state. In many cases, Patterson alleges in his complaint, the agency turns a blind eye to development and has repeatedly failed to take enforcement action when required to do so.
Later that day, Patterson would show me where Albemarle, which operates the only active lithium mine in the U.S., has engaged in construction on more than 1,000 acres of public land outside the approved boundary of their project, and “removed more than 10,000 tons of mineral materials without a modified Plan of Operations,” according to the complaint. In his complaint, Patterson says BLM officials have been aware of the new construction but refused to take enforcement action or conduct an environmental review. Patterson also says in the complaint he believes the District may be preparing documentation to be retroactively applied to justify the expansion. Albemarle told POLITICO that “We have not received, nor been made aware of, a whistleblower complaint submitted by a BLM employee at the Tonopah Field Office in Nevada. Thus, we cannot comment on it or the allegations.”
The day before we had hiked up into the Monte Cristo Range where, according to the whistleblower complaint, BLM had permitted road building in protected bighorn sheep habitat in violation of its own prohibition against new road construction there. Old mining claim markers—PVC piping staked into the ground—were still in place and invasive weeds, which thrive in disturbed habitat, had colonized the old roadbed. Since the exploration work and road construction were undertaken, Patterson says he hasn’t seen any bighorn sheep in the area, which he has monitored closely. Although the Tonopah Resource Management Plan, according to Patterson’s complaint, “contains a flat ban on road construction in essential bighorn habitat,” he said his concerns were ignored by management when he raised them.
At the Gemfield open pit gold mine, where the operator was in the middle of rerouting several miles of highway to accommodate the new mine, which had been approved by state and federal officials, we found at least two dozen Joshua Trees—a species conservation groups are pushing to list as endangered—that had been bulldozed into a pile. The removal of the trees had been approved by BLM with few mitigation measures in place. The cumulative impact of the agency’s lax regulatory enforcement was, in Patterson’s view, wreaking havoc on public lands across the state.
Patterson says BLM is underfunded and understaffed and that under the Trump administration the mining industry has essentially been given free rein on public lands. Still he says he’d like to continue to work for the agency. “I want to be in it for the long haul,” he said. “To make a difference for these scenic landscapes.”
According to the inspector general, in an email to Patterson’s attorney, the office has reviewed the complaint and is in the “process of evaluating each of the allegations and determining a path forward.”
“This is the Wild West out here,” Patterson had told me as we toured the Five Jokers site. “You can kind of do what you want. And these guys are doing it.”
Three days after my visit to Rhyolite Ridge with Patrick Donnelly, the Center for Biological Diversity announced that it was suing BLM over its segmenting of the mining exploration notices for the lithium project.
It was the first time the center had challenged BLM on these grounds and had the potential to expose what the center claims is an illegal and likely widespread practice within the agency while also drawing attention to the rare buckwheat. “The Trump administration is ignoring laws protecting rare species like this beautiful flower to give our public lands away to a mining company,” Donnelly said in a news release. “We’re going to court to make sure that Trump and the Bureau of Land Management obey the law and protect this remarkable little plant.” It was the center’s 175th lawsuit in three years challenging the administration’s environmental policies.
But two hours before the deadline for BLM to file its response to the complaint, the agency announced that Ioneer had relinquished the notices and that the agency had terminated them, which BLM claimed rendered the lawsuit moot. The Center for Biological Diversity and Ioneer, which had intervened as an interested party, have since worked out an agreement whereby the center has dropped the lawsuit and Ioneer has agreed to certain terms and conditions to safeguard the buckwheat.
Ioneer must now notify the center whether it intends to pursue any additional exploration activity or when it begins the process of seeking the necessary approvals for building the mine. The company is also required to use hand tools to do a small portion of its reclamation work, such as reseeding grasses along access roads.
Both sides have claimed victory. On January 8, Ioneer issued a news release saying it had successfully resolved the litigation and that there would be “no impact to the company’s ongoing activities related to the project.” Ioneer has also completed all of its exploration work at the site and therefore had little to lose by closing out the notices.
The company has been bullish on the project, recently raising $40 million in investment capital, and has even reached an agreement to supply a Chinese company with 105,000 tons of boric acid, a byproduct of the operation, every year beginning in 2023.
In the end, the BLM has not had to defend the way it issues exploration notices in court, so the legality of controversial practices like “segmenting,” which Patterson and Donnelly say favors mining companies over the environment, remains untested.
“In this administration, we have seen the doors to our public lands be thrown wide open to industry by the BLM avoiding and subverting any environmental protections we have on the books,” Donnelly said. “Sometimes that is through sweeping secretarial orders upending management of public lands but sometimes it’s just guys at their job trying to make the boss happy.”
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