Feds slap fines on Thacker Pass protestors
BLM is in the process of approving development of an open pit mine, so “for BLM to claim they are somehow protecting the land with the trespass notice and fine is absurd,” says an attorney being fined. (Courtesy photo by Max Wilbert)
Since January, protestors have set up camp about 35 miles south of the Oregon-Nevada border. Now two of the campers involved have been fined nearly $50,000 by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for trespassing.
The camp is part of several efforts by conservationists and Native American organizers to stop plans by the Canadian firm Lithium Americas to develop a lithium mine at Thacker Pass in Humboldt County.
Organizers say they believe the trespassing charge from BLM is in retaliation for their opposition to the mine. One of the two being fined is Will Falk, an attorney who is representing tribes in a lawsuit against BLM for issuing a permit without their consultation.
In an email sent to Falk, BLM attorney Arwyn Carroll denied the notice of trespass sent to him and his colleague Max Wilber “was in any manner retaliatory or a form of harassment.”
On August 5, the BLM delivered a trespass notice to camp organizers for the “unauthorized use, occupancy, or development” of two latrines and a windbreaker. The notice listed unauthorized makeshift latrines using wooden pallets, buckets, and plywood as a violation of federal land policy.
Camp organizers removed three makeshift structures. However, the BLM said two unauthorized latrines described in the notice were not removed, making the campers liable for $49,890.13 in trespassing costs.
“We gave them the opportunity to present evidence or information to show they were not in trespass or effect a settlement for trespass damages,” said a spokeswoman for the BLM Winnemucca office. “Although three structures were removed, two unauthorized latrines remained…Failure to remove those structures resulted in the September 15 Trespass Decision.”
The BLM says the two latrines and windbreaker affected one acre of public land that must be rehabilitated.
Falk said he will appeal the fines to the Interior Board of Land Appeals.
“An important thing to keep in mind with all of this is the structures that BLM is fining us for were all constructed on land where BLM has already issued a permit” which allows Lithium Americas to continue development work and “destroy the land with the world’s largest open pit lithium mine,” Falk said.
“So for BLM to claim they are somehow protecting the land with the trespass notice and fine is absurd.”
In correspondence with BLM, Terry Lodge, a co-counsel representing tribes in their lawsuit against the mine, called the trespass notice from BLM “arbitrary.”
“It is absurd to claim that these structures affect nearly one whole acre of land,” wrote Lodge. “This exaggeration is an attempt to justify the threat of large fines to intimidate Mr. Falk and Mr. Wilbert.”
Lodge argued “targeting only Mr. Falk and Mr. Wilbert with personal responsibility for the structures when BLM Winnemucca knows hundreds of other protestors have participated in the Protect Thacker Pass camp is also arbitrary.”
Falk says he requested guidance from the BLM on obtaining a special use permit for the temporary latrines, but did not receive a response. A spokesperson for the BLM said they “have no comment at this time” on Falk’s claim that organizers have not been able to apply for a permit.
In July, a U.S. federal judge granted The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, Burns Paiute Tribe and the People of Red Mountain permission to join a lawsuit seeking to block the mine.
Tribes in Nevada consider Thacker Pass a sacred space and refer to it as “Peehee mu’huh” which translates to “rotten moon” in honor of their ancestors who were massacred in an area of the Pass shaped like a moon. Native American tribes argue that industrial development on their ancestral land is “like disturbing Pearl Harbor or Arlington National Cemetery.”
Falk argued in court filings that BLM failed to provide reasonable outreach to all tribes in the region that could be affected by the mine, adding that the agency only sent letters “initiating formal consultation” to three tribes in the region who did not respond.
Lodge said he believes the trespass notice was sent in retaliation August 5 after he and Falk joined the lawsuit in July, after months of continuous presence at the protest camp without interference from BLM law enforcement.
Falk asserts the structures built at the protest camp are protected by the First Amendment and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. He said many Native American elders have visited Thacker Pass to practice their religion and faith after learning about the possible development of a lithium mine on the sacred site.
The Winnemucca District Office for the BLM, however, said the unauthorized latrines on public land was a violation of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, and the office has “no comment at this time” on organizers’ claims that the BLM has impeded Native Americans rights to practice their traditional religion.
A spokesperson for the the Department of Interior, the agency which oversees the BLM, said the department “does not have a comment on this matter,” and referred any questions to the BLM Winnemucca office.
A group of Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribal members who call themselves the People of Red Mountain say they hope to raise the public profile of their resistance to the mine through non-violent direct action, like continued occupation of the site.
Daranda Hinkey, a member of the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe and secretary for the People of Red Mountain said organizers are working to gain “national and global political attention” for Thacker Pass, in an emulation of ultimately successful resistance in North Dakota to the Keystone Pipeline, or more recently the opposition to the Line 3 oil pipeline expansion that would run through tribal lands in Minnesota.
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