ELKO – What impact would drilling or fracking have on the Ruby Mountains? Trout Unlimited and the National Wildlife Federation discussed the possibilities in a meeting that brought attendees of various political affiliations together.
Nearly 70 people attended the Jan. 17 meeting in Dalling Hall. It was hosted by the two conservation groups and included placards of maps, graphs and information describing the location of parcels within the Ruby Mountains and the impact of drilling and fracking on wildlife habitat.
The goal was to inform the community and encourage discussion ahead of a U.S. Forest Service decision on whether to open portions of the Ruby Mountains to oil and gas leasing, said Pam Harrington of Trout Unlimited.
“I think we provided people what they were seeking,” she said. ‘It couldn’t go any better than that, as far as I’m concerned.”
Lands north of Sherman Creek and south of Lamoille Creek are designated for leasing under a 1986 management plan. In 2018, the Forest Service opened two public comment periods and garnered 13,000 comments in opposition to the proposal.
The release of a draft decision has been delayed, with the latest setback attributed to the shutdown of the federal government.
Trout Unlimited, along with other conservation groups including the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, scheduled meetings in Reno, Las Vegas and Elko in hopes of keeping the issue at the forefront of people’s minds.
“This is the time to make your voice heard, not after you’re upset when the hunting’s not there,” said sportsman Justin French. “That’s the wrong time to come into the argument.”
Patrick Donnelly, state director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said thanks to opposition from the Legislature last summer and U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the draft decision has already been delayed a year, but he wants to see the Rubies fully protected with oil and gas leasing taken off the table permanently.
“How do we prevent this from happening again? Are there long-term protections that the Rubies can have so that this doesn’t happen again?” Donnelly asked.
Some of the area — “not a ton of acreage” — targeted for leasing was burned in the Range 2 fire, Donnelly said, which “adds to the idea that these places are just too important to drill.”
“We need to let these places heal, do restoration,” Donnelly said. “’So the idea you would take a freshly burned area and then potentially expose it to road building and drilling is just crazy.”
However, should the Forest Service approve the leases, Donnelly said that as a last resort the organization would fight the decision because the Rubies are “worth fighting for.”
“If they lease, rest assured, we will take them to court,” Donnelly said.
Te-Moak Tribe response
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Treating the Ruby Mountains with respect was the theme of speakers from the Te-Moak Tribe of the Western Shoshone, who issued a resolution on Jan. 2 that asked the Forest Service “not to offer a single parcel of the Ruby Mountains for any oil or gas leasing now or at any time in the future,” stating that exploration “would possibly and irreversibly damage waters, streams, springs, aquifers, wildlife habitat and traditional gathering sites ... and potentially limit access to Harrison Pass.”
After the meeting, Davis Gonzalez, chairman of the Elko Band Council, said anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 groups of Shoshone used to roam the Ruby Mountains in the 1800s, explaining that there are sacred blessing spots and burial places that could be disturbed by someone searching for oil.
“The fracking and drilling [is] going to destroy all of that,” Gonzalez said. “They don’t know what they’re going to do. They’re going to damage that beautiful mountain that we have.”
Tribe member Mary Gibson held up a sign throughout the meeting that read “Newe Sogobia is not a resource she is our lifesource” and “Get the frack out of Daca Doya.” She said that everyone, both tribe members and non-tribe members, have something to lose if drilling and exploration were allowed in the Rubies.
“This is Western Shoshone Land. This is Newe Sogobia, the people’s mother earth,” Gibson said. “This is what Indian people depend on to live as Shoshone people.”
“All of us here know we need water, air and land to exist,” Gibson continued. ”We all depend on it, so we have to stop this in some way.”
A learning opportunity
Others in attendance were from a mix of political parties and affiliations. Congressional representatives for U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei and senators Catharine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen watched the presentation from the audience and talked with constituents, many of whom stated they were not in attendance to represent a political party but to learn more about the issue.
“It’s beautiful,” said Harrington. “[P]eople are coming together that don’t necessarily sit on the same side of the table. The Rubies are ‘a spot on the wall’ that we can all agree on being protected.”
An Elko County Democrat who declined to give his name said he attended to learn about both sides of the issue, but that he was “definitely biased against” oil exploration in the Rubies.
“I’m here to learn who are pro or con, and have some discussion in the process,” he said. “The Rubies are way too majestic and I don’t quite understand.”
Getting the facts was one of the reasons Bert Gurr, chairman of the Elko County advisory Board of Wildlife, attended Thursday night’s meeting.
“I want to see what they’re talking about so I can get an idea of where to fight, what to fight and whether there’s a reason to fight,” Gurr said before the meeting started.
Gurr said that as a Spring Creek resident who has hunted in the Rubies, he was opposed to seeing drilling structures dot the landscape of the Ruby Mountains.
“The last thing I want to see is derricks along the foothills of the Rubies,” Gurr said.
Donnelly said it has been “an eye-opening experience” discussing the issue with those who would normally oppose his organization. He added that he knows some consider his organization to be “a left-wing extreme environmental group,” but that his and his organization’s fight for the Rubies has created new relationships.
“We’ve been able to make connections with other people who we may disagree with on other issues, but we all agree that the Rubies are with fighting for and putting our differences aside for.”