Dispatches from Thacker Pass – Cross the river by feeling the stones

image - Max Wilbert

Opinion

On January 15th, my friend Will Falk and I launched a protest on the slopes of the Montana Mountains (Northern Paiute / Western Shoshone territory) here in northern Nevada, aiming to stop a proposed $1.3 billion open-pit lithium mine that would rip open this wild sagebrush steppe and pump billions of gallons of precious desert water, and leave behind literal mountains of toxic rubble.

At first, it was just the two of us (and, for the first few days, my wonderful fiancée) here. For weeks, we wrote articles, took photographs, recorded video, sent out press releases, and conducted interviews, hoping to motivate others to join us to protect this place.

One of our biggest battles has been against greenwashing. Lithium Americas claims this will be a “green” strip mine that will help decarbonize the global economy by generating batteries to support wind, solar, and electric cars. This is a distraction. We will not strip mine our way to sustainability. Change must be more fundamental, and more challenging to power, than simply changing the energy source for a consumeristic car culture. As the author of a new book Bright Green Lies that examines the failures of so-called green technology, I know these issues well — and lithium is a distraction that allows us to maintain the illusion that a modern, wasteful, high-energy lifestyle can (or should) be maintained, not a solution. 

We will not solve the problems caused by destroying and consuming the living planet by further destroying and consuming the living planet.

Our other battles are against complacency, powerlessness, and very agencies supposedly tasked with “stewarding” public lands. After 25 days on the mountain, threats of fines and arrest from the Bureau of Land Management forced Will and I to leave camp—but not before others arrived. Blessedly, our call has been heard. 

The “Protect Thacker Pass” encampment has now stood for 37 days and counting.

Saturday morning, I returned to camp, rested after two weeks of sleeping in my small cabin next to the warm woodstove, at home in rural Oregon. I found camp bustling: a fire crackling in the pit, people exploring the land, a 10-year-old girl exclaiming happily as she pulled out a baby tooth. 

Beneath us all, the land thrums with energy. The wind blows, the stars sparkle, the sage breathe, the mountains abide. I sink back into this place.

Returning to Thacker Pass feels like coming home, after spending three and a half weeks here. 

But over the last 10 hours, I have felt a tension build in my shoulders. It is not the cold, or sleeping on the ground. The tension is the strain of living on, and loving, land that is damned. 

It feels as though a headsman’s axe is raised behind me. The axe is sharp, and my skin is soft. I do not know when it will fall. The hairs on the back of my neck prickle. 

It is possible that Lithium Americas corporation, the multinational Canadian mining company behind this project, will attempt to start bulldozing and blasting Thacker Pass at any moment. And so, we need urgent support here at camp on an ongoing basis. 

While a lawsuit has been filed against the project, we’re not sanguine about it’s prospects. My only faith lies in overwhelming public opposition, led by people on-the-ground, standing in the way of the machines.

Running a campaign like this is like wading across a river, staggering against the current, slipping and falling into hidden depths, soldiering forward through the cold water. And yet tonight, I will sleep warm and well, knowing there is a village around me — a community of water protectors who are also in love with this place. The burden of responsibility is spread among us. The load no longer feels quite so heavy.

And yet, the axe is there, poised overhead, and our strength is more the potential of a stone tumbling downhill than the pure kinetic force of an avalanche. Tomorrow, some of these people will depart, and our strength will be less. We will need to become unstoppable, implacable, to stop this mine—and to save our planet from countless other forms of ruination stalking this blue-green world.

What will come tomorrow, I wonder? Will a bulldozer rumble around the mountain? Will the golden eagles return to spiral above our heads?

And what of you? Will your face be the next we see cresting the final rise to camp? Will you find in yourself that long-buried warrior spirit, dust off your honor, and stand for the living world? Where will you be when the flames are high?

If you are interested in joining us, visit our website to learn more about getting involved. And speak out on this issue. We can’t save the planet by destroying it. Transitioning away from fossil fuels and fixing humanity’s broken relationship with the planet will require a more critical approach.


Max Wilbert is an organizer, writer, and wilderness guide. He has been part of grassroots political work for nearly 20 years. His second book, Bright Green Lies: How The Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It, co-authored with Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith, will be released in March.


The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Our newsroom remains entirely independent of our opinion page. Published opinions further public conversation to fulfill our civic responsibility to challenge authority, act independently of corporate or political influence, and invite dissent.