One of Earth's rarest wildflowers is in the crosshairs of a lithium mining juggernaut

Deep in Nevada's remote Esmeralda County, an unassuming little plant has found itself an unlikely combatant in the high-stakes battle over lithium mining and green energy. Tiehm's buckwheat, a delicate yellow-flowered perennial, exists nowhere else on Earth except a small stretch of public land called Rhyolite Ridge.

But this fragile species isn't just rare – it's rooted directly atop one of the world's largest deposits of searlesite, a lithium-boron ore that's become hot commodity in the rush for renewable battery tech. Australian mining giant Ioneer has its sights set on a massive open-pit mine that could crank out enough lithium to power 370,000 electric vehicles per year for over half a century.

As Will Durkin reports in his article, "The Curious Case of Eriogonum tiehmii," it's a tantalizing prospect for an administration dead-set on achieving energy independence through domestic battery production. Yet for botanists and conservationists, it presents an agonizing dilemma: sacrifice this unique species at the altar of "green" mining interests, or fight to protect biodiversity at the risk of slowing the urgently-needed transition to sustainable technology?

The battle lines were drawn in September 2020, when a mind-boggling 60% of the entire Tiehm's buckwheat population mysteriously vanished overnight. Federal biologists cried hungry rodents, while conservation groups smelled a rat of the human variety, circulating photos of suspicious footprints and cleanly cut roots.

Despite finally gaining endangered species protections in late 2022, the buckwheat's future remains precarious. Environmental review maps reveal mining operations are planned to encroach within just 30 feet of the plant's fragile habitat zone. Conservationists warn this could spell ecological collapse through invasive species and disruption of the specialized insects that pollinate this botanical enigma.

Durkin writes:

As I see it, the United States faces two crises with lithium extraction: climate change and species extinction. In the curious case of Eriogonum tiehmii vs. lithium mining, how can we choose? The extirpation of this species by uninhibited mineral extraction at Rhyolite Ridge will allow the U.S. to grow its current lithium production by over 1,000 percent, increasing our capacity to mitigate climate change and help save other vulnerable species just like the buckwheat. On the other hand, saving this species might continue to enable a poorly regulated global market and long-distance transportation of lithium, emitting more fossil fuels as well as stoking American NIMBY hypocrisy. And yet, even if this mine is going full bore, the U.S. will still only control mere pebbles of the global supply of lithium compared to the mountains of reserves that other countries hold. Will this mine in Nevada make enough difference to warrant endangering a rare species? After all, once the Teslas of the world are drained of their lithium juice, where do all the benefits of green energy go? The further I dig into this story, the more I feel that upending Rhyolite Ridge is a façade of sustainability and a greenwashed political and marketing stunt.

With over 90% of global lithium supply controlled by foreign nations, the lure of domestic mining is understandable. But at what cost? As another massive lithium operation forges ahead at Nevada's Thacker Pass amidst court battles over environmental impacts, Tiehm's buckwheat has become a poster child for the increasingly high-stakes conflict between conservation and green energy needs.

In this remote desert outpost, the future of a modest wildflower may ultimately hinge on political gambles, corporate resource grabs, and society's willingness to look past short-term gains toward a sustainable path forward.