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Indigenous leaders, environmentalists urge lawmakers to pass protections for sacred swamp cedars

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg
EnvironmentTribal nations
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Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

A lot of news this week, and it’s only halfway over. On that note, a small piece of programming. As we spring forward into daylight saving time, so too is this newsletter. We are moving the run date for the Indy Environment newsletter up to Wednesday for the foreseeable future. 

As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email me with any tips or suggestions at [email protected]

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Most Rocky Mountain juniper trees grow at elevation. But near the eastern edge of the state, a  unique population of large juniper trees rest on a valley floor. For generations, the trees have lived in an area within Spring Valley, outside of Ely, that is known as Bahsahwahbee, or “the sacred water valley” in Shoshone. For Indigenous communities in the area, it is everything.

On Monday, Delaine Spilsbury, an Ely Shoshone elder, told lawmakers that the land is sometimes compared to Mecca or Vatican City. Bahsahwahbee is a ceremonial site for many communities in the area. It could also be compared to Wounded Knee. The land is the site of multiple gruesome massacres of hundreds of Indigenous people in the 1800s.

“But,” Spilsbury said, “I want to say that you cannot compare Bahsahwahbee to anywhere else. There is only one. And if the Swamp Cedars are gone from Bahsahwahbee, then it is all gone.”

The stands of unique juniper trees in Bahsahwahbee are described as the swamp cedars, and under proposed legislation, they could receive state protection, a measure widely supported by Indigenous communities and environmental groups during a hearing Monday evening.

Assembly Bill 171 would make it the state’s policy to protect the geographically distinct Rocky Mountain juniper population and make it illegal to damage the swamp cedars without obtaining a special permit from the state, similar to rules that govern other sensitive species. 

“When you get to this valley, you see how different and significant it is to have a stand of Rocky Mountain junipers thriving in this valley floor,” said Assemblyman Howard Watts III (D-Las Vegas), the bill’s sponsor and the chair of the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources.

Watts said the bill’s language mirrors the protections given to distinct species for threats. Those designations are typically species-wide. But the proposed bill applies similar regulations, Watts said, to a subsection of the Rocky Mountain juniper population in Bahsahwahbee because of its importance to Indigenous communities and its unique presence in low-elevation habitat. 

Rupert Steele, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, described the area as a sacred, spiritual and holy place for Goshute and Shoshone communities.

“My people were massacred in a very, very harsh way at swamp cedar,” Steele said. “Just like a seed, each one of those swamp cedars was fertilized by one of those that was massacred there. And through that, we live spiritually and connect with Mother Earth through them. And to destroy those trees would be an act of genocide.”

His message resonated with communities from other parts of the state. Marla McDade Williams, a lobbyist testifying on behalf of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, said the ancestors of their Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe members “have been affected by issues like this throughout the history of this country.”

“That said, historical cultural areas of Nevada are important to all of us and we urge your support for AB 171,” McDade Williams said. 

If the legislation is approved, it would mark a significant moment for state law because it would be the first time a statute specifically protected a plant because of its cultural value. Watts said he saw the legislation fitting in with broader efforts to recognize Indigenous rights at the state level.

“One of the things I’ve been advocating for is addressing the long and painful history that our state and government has with Native American people,” Watts said in an interview Tuesday. “I think there’ve been a lot of instances, over time, including recently, where the cultural, spiritual beliefs of Native populations here have been overlooked or disregarded.”

Tribal leaders across northeastern Nevada stressed the importance of Bahsahwahbee, and the need for state protection. Although the land, controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, has several layers of protection, state protection would more concretely protect the plant. 

In the past, the swamp cedars faced threats from the proposed Las Vegas pipeline. For decades, the Southern Nevada Water Authority had sought permits to pump groundwater in Spring Valley and pipe it to Las Vegas. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, which shelved its plans for the pipeline last year, has not taken a position on the legislation.

Several environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Nature Conservancy, the Nevada Conservation League, Great Basin Resource Watch and the Great Basin Water Network, supported the legislation.

In written testimony, the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said it supported the “spirit and intent” of the bill, but the agency raised concerns about precedent.

“We appear to be standing at the top of a long slippery slope,” Dominique Etchegoyhen, the agency’s deputy director. “There are innumerable important natural resources across this vast state, many of which are located on federal lands. These unique resources cannot all be individually recognized in state statute, each requiring a special permit issued by the State Forester Firewarden. The burden would simply be too great.”

But Etchegoyhen, in later testimony, said the state did support a second piece of legislation, AJR 4, an assembly joint resolution calling on the federal government to increase protections for the area.


Here’s what else I’m watching this week:

A historic confirmation: Incoming Interior Secretary Deb Haaland made history as the first Indigenous person to serve in a cabinet-level position. The Senate confirmed Haaland to the position on Monday in a 51-40 vote. The Department of Interior oversees federal public land across the West, and the agency plays a decision-making role in everything from protecting sensitive ecosystems to permitting mines. The Interior Department is especially important in Nevada, where the federal government is responsible for managing about 85 percent of land within the state. 

  • Importantly, the agency oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs. That means “Haaland will also be responsible for upholding the government’s legally binding obligations to the tribes – treaty obligations that have been systematically violated with devastating consequences for life expectancy, exposure to environmental hazards, political participation and economic opportunities in Indian Country,” as reporter Nina Lakhani writes for The Guardian.
  • Soon after the election in November, the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada sent a letter of support to the incoming Biden administration for nominating Haaland. “As the leaders of sovereign tribal nations, we believe it is long past time that a Native American person serve as Secretary of Interior,” the Inter-Tribal Council wrote. After President Joe Biden nominated Haaland to lead the agency, we reached out to tribal leaders from across the state to talk about what her historic nomination meant. 

The mining tax debate: On Tuesday night, we hosted an IndyTalks panel on the debate in the Legislature over whether to change the constitutional cap on taxing mines. In August, legislators passed three resolutions in a special session that would increase how much the industry pays in taxes. Although legislators have not yet taken up the resolutions in this session, lawmakers are expected to weigh the proposals in the coming weeks. To amend the Constitution, the Legislature must approve the resolutions again. Then they would go to a vote in the 2022 general election.

All three resolutions kickstart the process of amending the Constitution. Two resolutions remove a 5 percent cap on the net proceeds of minerals and replace it with a 7.75 percent tax rate on gross proceeds, raising an estimated $541 million, with a portion of that revenue going toward education and health care or to Nevadans as a dividend. A third measure, cast as an “olive branch” to the industry, raises the net proceeds tax cap to 12 percent, but it is estimated to generate less revenue than the other proposals.

Our panel included Lorne Malkiewich, former Legislative Counsel Bureau director; Laura Martin, executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada; and James Wadhams, a longtime lobbyist for the mining industry. Check out the full discussion here.

Sisolak on Blockchains and water: Last month, we reported on concerns, including from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, about acquiring the water needed for Blockchains LLC to develop a Smart City as part of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s “Innovation Zone” proposal. Last week, Sisolak’s spokesperson Meghin Delaney replied to two questions I sent to the office. Here they are:

  1.  Is the governor concerned about the environmental consequences of importing water? “Responsible and equitable use of Nevada’s water resources are top of mind and will be the focus of much work between all the parties involved before any approvals are granted.  An Innovation Zone developer will be required to navigate the same water use rules as any other developer in Nevada.”
  1. Has the state consulted with the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe or considered their views? “The state is in the very early stages of a long-term project, and the state is committed to working with all stakeholders on the responsible development of the Innovation Zone. The door is always open to the PLPT to answer any questions the tribe may have about the proposal.”

Gold mining outside of Death Valley: The Los Angeles Times’ Louis Sahagún writes about Indigenous communities and environmental groups pushing back against a proposed gold mine near Death Valley. He writes that “environmental groups and tribal nations have drawn a line in the alluvial sands overlooking the community of Lone Pine, population 2,000, on the eastern flanks of the Sierra Nevada range: No mining in Conglomerate Mesa, not ever again.”


Drought across the West: “The Western US is in the midst of yet another dangerous dry spell. The drought has been building over the past year, and since November, a greater stretch of the West has been in the most severe category of drought than at any time in the 20 years that the National Drought Mitigation Center has been keeping records,”  Lili Pike writes for Vox in an article that makes the connection to climate change. 

New report calls for stronger climate action: “A new analysis finds that Nevada is not on track to meet its 2050 greenhouse gas reduction targets absent stronger clean energy policies,” Jeniffer Solis reports for the Nevada Current. “The analysis by research firm Energy Innovation — based on a state-specific version of the firm’s “energy policy simulator“— shows that without additional action Nevada’s emissions will actually increase 12 percent by 2050 as fossil fuel use outpaces solar power and electric vehicle growth.”

30 by 30: The Sierra Nevada Ally’s Brian Bahouth has a good piece about testimony in the Legislature on a resolution supporting the conservation of 30 percent of the state by 2030.

Thacker Pass, lithium and mining: Grist’s Maddie Stone writes about the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine, approved in the final days of the Trump administration. From the story: “The controversy over Thacker Pass highlights a much bigger challenge the Biden administration will have to grapple with in order to quickly transition the U.S. economy to carbon-free energy sources: How to acquire the vast mineral resources that are needed, such as metals needed for batteries, like lithium, cobalt, and nickel, without sacrificing biodiversity or the health of communities living nearby mining projects.”

Something to watch: “As part of its Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has identified more than 2,000 MW of new renewable energy generation in southwest Nevada that would help California achieve its climate change goals,” Gridliance announced in a press release this week. More to report on this in the coming weeks.

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