Nevada Lithium Miner Days

A down on his luck husband from Winnemucca, Nevada had been drinking hard, there were words, he got into a quarrel with his wife took her outside and shot her and his son dead. An all-points bulletin went out for a man by the name of Ty Victor Albisu, the Highway Patrol believed the murderer to be armed and dangerous, the suspect was seen headed north on Highway 95 toward the border, the Paiute Shoshone town of McDermitt is there. A day later, it was on the Solstice this past June, longest day of the year, when the suspect was found ten miles off the main highway out a dirt two track road, the Winnemucca husband and father was dead in his car of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. 

Thacker Pass

There was nothing suspicious. Appears a defective propane heater caused the fire. Two Winnemucca men were pronounced dead at the scene. This was March of this year.

Last year Winnemucca City Council denied a license to a vendor that wanted to open both a dispensary and cannabis consumption lounge.  Dispensary was approved the lounge part of the permit was turned down. No problem, this is Nevada there are work arounds. 

In 2017 Nevada’s Tribal Marijuana Compact was passed by legislature in Carson City. There were some questions about what Nevada’s tribes could or could not do and this new law settled those concerned with keeping Nevada in the business of catering to whatever a human being might want, need or desire. Just so happens that right there in the heart of Winnemucca is located Indian land, the term of art is colony. With the expert guidance of Tribal Cannabis Consulting the tribe opened a drive-thru dispensary, cannabis café and consumption lounge. Quinn River Farms out of McDermitt was licensed and provides product for this Winnemucca dispensary. That’s how things get done in Nevada. You really do need to reconsider moving here. 

 The Winner’s Inn Casino and Hotel is a 2-minute walk from Winnemucca Convention Center, 7-minute walk to the Amtrak station and about a one-minute ride in a getaway car to the interstate. One time while passing through on the interstate I’d gone in for a late afternoon dinner, the Winner’s Inn was known for serving the best prime rib in Humboldt County, by coincidence we were treated to an official weigh-in for a prize fight scheduled to take place that evening at the convention center. The two game faced boxers removed their robes and stepped on the scales. The weight of each fighter was officially announced then recorded by prize fighting officials, these were a gallery of men all had the look of citizens with priors, they had the suspicious demeanor of a perpetrator that knew too much and were under the bosses orders to keep their mouths shut. One fighter seemed to have struggled to make the official weight, the boxer was whisked away, the trainer knew his kid needed a meal and fast before his legs went out from under him. 

Life is writ large in the 7th largest state in the Union. To get some idea of its size if you were to take off by car from a casino south in Laughlin and go north to a gas station in McDermitt that drive would be the equivalent of traveling from Atlanta to Washington DC. 

Civilization is tenuous in Nevada, the potential for weakness of appetite haunts Nevadans, it is too common to find yourself overcome by the solitude and Great Basin abyss, you’ll end up going feral, you’ll end up running with coyotes, roaming with mustang, bagging a bull elk out of season, it’s all too sure the tempting pull into lawlessness is endemic. 

Detective Matthew Morgan working with the Winnemucca Sheriff’s Department died on June 25, 2020— the cause of death— an overdose of fentanyl and methamphetamine. Everything is in play here in the Great Basin— the brothels, the crap tables, the mob bribes, booze and tobacco, these are self-indulgent Nevadan behaviors, a native son can’t see vice as a human flaw.

There are 17,000 living in Humboldt County, Nevada. Most live in Winnemucca. Up in McDermitt there are 400 Paiute Shoshone living on 19,000 acres. The tribal members live along the Quinn River. 

Quinn River Valley Irrigation Pivot

South of McDermitt is located the Quinn River Valley farmlands. Hay and alfalfa are irrigated. Paradise Valley to the east also is hay farming land. Then, over to the west is Kings River Valley where there is also hay farming. Humboldt County exports most of the hay to California and Idaho, tallied up all this hay is worth about $135 million. 

Paiute Shoshone tribal members find some work on the farms, most don’t find any work at all. You are an eighty-mile drive back to Winnemucca if you live in McDermitt. Gasoline for a roundtrip in a pickup truck, that’s got to take 10 gallons of fuel, figure $40 just to go to town for groceries. 

The Montana Mountains separate Quinn River Valley and the Kings River Valley. The road running east to west between the two valleys runs through Thacker Pass. Lithium has been discovered up on this mountain, science identifies the geology of this spot a caldera. To halt its development the Paiute Shoshone in McDermitt have claimed that in 1865 members of their tribe were massacred there by soldiers from the United States Army and that the mine would desecrate the land their ancestors died on. 

Humboldt County Hay Crop

There is no evidence the massacre was fought on this ground. There is just too little information. It is just as probable that the massacre took place on nearby hayfields, fields that have been plowed and harvested for most of a century. If you dig a little further into the issue what comes to light is that not all 400 tribal citizens in McDermitt are of the same opinion about the development of the lithium mine. Some portion of the tribe see the opportunity of finding a good paying job in a place where few if any have been available. To that end courses at the community college in Winnemucca that prepare a student for work in the mining industry are available and the new mining company has already promised to make a priority of employing the Paiute Shoshone. 

Hay farm operations will need to reckon with the changes the mine will bring to Northern Humboldt County. Maybe a century ago it made sense to allocate 90% of all the water up here to hay growers, but it is time to recalibrate, we don’t travel by horseback, more and more people don’t drink milk, and exporting the hay to markets in other states is essentially exporting all the available public water for the benefit of a handful of private growers. Anytime one industry is found to be using most of the water from one watershed it is going to turn out that one day that deal is going to need changing. The world’s climate emergency has arrived, and that time for a new bargain has come.

Environmental organizations have been opposed to the Thacker Pass lithium mine. They can’t be faulted entirely, the history of mining companies operating responsibly is not promising. The mining company out of Vancouver, British Columbia has submitted plans and its permit has been issued. Lithium America’s offices are in Reno. Trucks will take the lithium to Winnemucca where Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway will then ship the metal to nearby manufacturing facilities. Tesla, Ford and General Motors all have built or are building enormous battery manufacturing facilities, some are here in Nevada others as far away as Michigan and Tennessee.

The fight between forces for climate action and environmental justice will continue. Hay growers in Northern Humboldt County, Nevada will have to surrender some of the water they’ve been using. In a resource constrained world some compromise to what we grow and how we eat are going to be necessary if we are going to avoid incinerating humanity into extinction, we need to try something.

The Paiute Shoshone people have proven to be responsible stewards of the land they first settle on 15,000 years ago. Lithium America would do well and be wise to seek the tribes help. Our first people lived here and in balance with the natural world for all these many thousands of years, it is not by accident, it happened by a people that had the wisdom to listen to the earth, to understand her limits. In this crazy world you would be hard pressed to imagine that in this most remote unpopulated northernmost corner of Nevada that our first people would be called upon once again, after the Indian Wars of the 1860’s, after signing the peace treaty, after agreeing to surrender vast swaths of their land, that having done all of that, that now the climate emergency would come near two centuries later to ask for further sacrifice, and that it is the Paiute Shoshone, the hay growers, environmental organizations and the mining company that through cooperation, mutual assistance, that all of these various stakeholders are going to make this all work. 

Now this Bobby Garza character, back south down in Winnemucca last month ran into trouble when he was caught trying to use a stolen credit card, sheriff while attempting to arrest the 37-year-old suspect got into quite a scrap. Like so many Nevada men he has got some history with the courts and is likely to be put back into the gray rock hotel for a spell. By the time he gets out the lithium mine should be up and operating and with luck and sincere rehabilitation it is one of those 600 good paying jobs this ex-con might hope to land. 

Orovada, Nevada Gateway to Thacker Pass

Nothing about rural Nevada changes, it remains remote and empty, most what you’ll find is the truth of what you truly are, friend or foe, good or bad, often you’ll live by the pursuit of vice, a few odd characters take the riskier path and try their luck with virtue. That’s just less common out here, no man of appetite and excess is wired up to behave problem free, that is just not in the nature of the animal, and once you’re out in Nevada you need to understand yourself, look into that image in the mirror and see that you have limits and boundaries to all that goodness locked up inside that human heart you have been given. Plenty come here to whet their appetite and uncage their spirit, but most are satisfied after a lost weekend to return to where they make their home and fend off such feverish temptations. Most of us are wiser for this, Nevada can be tough as a stubborn burro, even the good souls have to fend off the demon temptation to go bad.

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