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SOURCE: The Bellingham Herald

DATE: March 7, 2020

SNIP: The rare Tiehm’s buckwheat stands less than a foot tall (30 centimeters) in Nevada’s rocky high desert, its thin, leafless stems adorned with tiny yellow flowers in spring.

To the Australian company that wants to mine lithium beneath the federal land where it grows, the perennial herb is a potential roadblock to a metal badly needed for electric vehicles and the global push to reduce greenhouse gases.

To environmentalists determined to halt the open pit mine, it’s a precious species that exists nowhere else in the world.

The competing interests appeared to find some common ground earlier this year at the remote site about 200 miles (320 kilometers) southeast of Reno. Ioneer Ltd. has spent millions exploring the site, which it says is one of the world’s biggest undeveloped lithium-boron deposits.

But the Center for Biological Diversity withdrew its lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in January after Ioneer ended its exploration activities and agreed to provide the group notice before resuming any work at Rhyolite Ridge in rural Esmeralda County.

Still, Ioneer remains committed to the mine it says is expected to produce 22,000 tons (19,958 metric tonnes) of lithium carbonate needed for electric car batteries like the ones Tesla makes east of Reno, create 400 to 500 construction jobs and 300 to 400 operational jobs.

And environmentalists insist the legal battle is just beginning.

“The storm is brewing on the horizon,” said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada director of the Center for Biological Diversity.

“If you look at a map of the lithium deposits and a map of the buckwheat, there’s really no way to build the mine without wiping out the buckwheat,” Donnelly said. “We fully anticipate a fight for many years to come.”

Company officials say they’ve been researching the plant since 2016, going to great lengths to ensure its protection and examining how it’s fared during previous mining operations at Rhyolite Ridge, near the small town of Tonopah, over the past 80 years.

They recently spent $60,000 for a yearlong study at the University of Nevada, Reno. Scientists there are growing hundreds of seedlings in a greenhouse to determine whether it’s feasible to transplant them into the wild to bolster the limited population, an estimated 43,000 plants covering a total of 21 acres (8.5 hectares).

University researchers are doing their best to replicate the harsh desert conditions with poor soil quality at the greenhouse where they planted 3,276 Tiehm seeds in January.

But Donnelly said the new research appears to be aimed at finding an alternative site “to keep the species alive so Ioneer could destroy its habitat.”

He acknowledged a difference between transplanting plants and growing them from seeds, but said it’s “beside the point, really.”

“A species is more than a set of genetic material. A species is inextricable from its habitat,” Donnelly said. “To allow a species’ habitat to be wiped out and put it someplace else, is functionally allowing it to go extinct.”