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Ruby Mountain protections: Where we’ve been, where we are going

Carl Erquiaga
Carl Erquiaga

The Ruby Mountains in northeastern Nevada stretch for nearly 100 miles in Elko County, with 10 peaks towering over 10,000 feet. These rugged, glacier-carved mountains and their cold, clear streams serve as a stronghold of native cutthroat trout and other wildlife, while providing an abundance of world-class public land opportunities for hunting, fishing and other forms of outdoor recreation. They are also the origin of one of the most important big-game migration corridors in the state, utilized by one of its largest mule deer herds, and home to many other fish and wildlife species, including the Lahontan cutthroat trout.

In late 2017 the first request was made to allow leasing for oil and gas exploration on over 53,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land in Nevada’s Ruby Mountains. Over the next year, Humboldt Toiyabe Forest personnel prepared the documents required by law to analyze impacts to the area and then issue a decision whether the action should be allowed. At the same time, a groundswell of public opposition formed and, when the public comment period on the proposal opened, thousands of individuals and organizations spoke out against the proposal. In fact, only a handful of comments in support were received by the Forest Service. 

Finally, in 2019, Forest Supervisor Bill Dunkelberger issued a no-leasing decision on the request. However, within days of that decision, expressions of interest were filed on an additional 88,000 acres, many of which were the same parcels previously denied. It was clear whoever was behind the requests was not going away. 

That same year, after hearing the many pleas to protect the iconic Ruby Mountains by not allowing drilling for oil, Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortz Masto (D-NV) introduced legislation to permanently withdraw the Ruby Mountains area of the Humboldt Toiyabe Forest from leasing for oil and gas development. The legislation would only affect oil and gas leasing.

In a bipartisan move, Nevada Rep.  Mark Amodei (R-NV) introduced a similar companion bill a short time later. The two bills have been reintroduced each session of Congress since 2019, including this spring. Yet, despite many efforts, neither have gone to the floor of their respective chamber for a full vote. It is clear the best way to move legislation such as this is to incorporate it into a larger, compatible, multistate lands package. Unfortunately, no such opportunity has been available.

Seeing the need to get interim protections on the ground while a permanent approach looks to advance in Congress, Sens. Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen (D-NV) took steps to secure a 20-year administrative withdrawal from leasing by the Biden administration. In a series of letters  to Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland in August and November, the senators asked the secretary to take the necessary action for a withdrawal of approximately 350,000 acres. Under the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, the U.S. Department of Interior is charged with administering oil and gas leasing on the nation’s forest as well as Bureau of Land Management land.  

This action, and the legislation, is supported by the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone of Nevada, who consider the area sacred and whose reservation sits along the western flank of the Rubies. The Ruby Mountains are considered central to the lives of the Western Shoshone peoples.

In addition, Sportsmen for the Rubies, a coalition of 15 Nevada hunting and fishing groups, has supported bipartisan efforts to pass legislation permanently protecting the Rubies since 2019 and also supports the request for an administrative mineral withdrawal. 

So many hunting and fishing opportunities for Nevada sportsmen and women are tied to the wildness of the Ruby Mountains and the Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Because of these invaluable qualities, the diverse, bipartisan support of tribes, legislators and citizens remains strong and will continue to take steps forward to protect the places Nevadans love to hunt and fish. We urge the Bureau of Land Management to take administrative action to withdraw the oil and gas resources from leasing within the Ruby Mountains and Ruby Lake Refuge to safeguard this truly unique landscape in Nevada.

Carl Erquiaga is the Nevada field representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.


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