Tiehm went part-time on botany for a while. He found work in Reno as a casino bellman and limo driver and did a little consulting work for gold mines and geothermal exploration projects. In 1994, he was asked by the BLM to go back to the ridge and do a formal census of his namesake. He searched well beyond its 10-acre habitat, hiking into some of the nearby mountains where he could see similar patches of white earth from the highway. But he didn’t find it there. He noted the old mining scars, so he suggested in his report that the BLM restrict mineral extraction in the area, which the agency declined to do. He didn’t press the issue. Apart from this odd plant, who would want this lonely hill?
Then, two years ago, Tiehm found himself driving down to Rhyolite Ridge with Elizabeth Leger, a fellow botanist and his boss at the university. She was conducting a study, with money from Ioneer, to see whether the buckwheat could be safely moved from the mining pit. She needed to gather the native soil to grow seedlings in the greenhouses on campus. Leger had taken on the research knowing that transplanting might not work. In 1987 government scientists had tried to move the Crosby buckwheat, another lover of strange soils, to make room for a gold mine north of Reno. It grew happily in its new home at first. Then, 30 years later, one of Leger’s graduate students decided to check in. They found the habitat choked with other plants, barely a buckwheat to be found. Luckily, Crosby’s buckwheat had other homes besides the gold mine. Tiehm’s did not. “In my opinion,” Tiehm says, “this plant is not going to grow in any other place you put it.”
But it wasn’t Tiehm’s project. He was just there as a guide. “I’m good at knowing what’s not my business,” he says. Still, it was a strange position to be in. Without him, the buckwheat could very well have been tilled as overburden, and no one would have been the wiser. Would it matter? The buckwheat is an endangered species, he believes. Yet he can see also how much the world needs lithium. He can see the road to clean energy is an imperfect one, not without collateral damage. Who is he to decide where the hammer should fall?
In Esmeralda County, Nevada, a three-hour drive to Costco is a routine grocery run. Roughly 900 people live over 3,580 square miles in two valleys on either side of Rhyolite Ridge. The volcanic outcrop is a botanical meeting point. One side is a forest of Joshua trees, the northernmost of the Mojave, and the other is a sea of sagebrush, the start of the Great Basin. For Fraga, driving to the ridge from her home on the outskirts of Los Angeles is a multiday trip.
When Fraga and I arrived there on a bright day last October, the first thing she saw was a pair of ATV tracks cut deep into the white hill and straight through the buckwheat. “You’ve gotta be friggin’ kidding me,” she said as she hopped out of the passenger side of a dust-covered Toyota Tacoma. Fraga is 41 years old and was wearing leggings tucked into hiking shoes, her hair in a ponytail under a baseball cap. The Tacoma’s driver, Patrick Donnelly, is the Nevada director for the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group leading the cause for the buckwheat’s protection. He made a note to report the new damage to the BLM and grumbled about how it should have already put up a fence.