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Landscapes of Coexistence

Aya Abualhayjaa and Andre Rezaie

In the midst of a global paradigm shift from fossil fuels to clean and green energy sources, our world is turning to lithium and other essential mineral counterparts to power on technology in our daily lives. Simultaneously, mining lithium and other minerals such as boron, cobalt, and manganese for the production of lithium-ion batteries proves to be detrimental to the environment, disrupting local ecologies and resulting in a loss of biodiversity and competition for scarce natural resources like water. With growing pressures to access lithium, can we devise novel mechanisms to enable the coexistence of extraction and ecological conservation? Could more mining also mean more biodiversity?

While the only active lithium extraction site in the United States is Albemarle’s Silver Peak mine in Esmeralda County, Nevada, new mining operations are set to increase as national and global demand continues to climb. Today, Australian-based company Ioneer is surveying Rhyolite Ridge for lithium-boron extraction. Only separated by twelve miles from Silver Peak, the site is publicly accessible and administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management. A small oasis in the arid regional landscapes, Rhyolite Ridge is a mountainous area surrounded by natural springs, and home to species of flora and fauna like the mule deer, bighorn sheep, and the critically endangered Tiehm’s buckwheat plant.

Through a partnership among Ioneer, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the University of Nevada, this project offers an alternate phasing approach to typical mining operations, that prioritize ecological conservation and rights to public access of the land. Working in a tactical and anticipatory manner, the proposal builds on the U.S. National Natural Landmark (NNL) program, “recognizing and encouraging the conservation of sites that contain outstanding biological and geological resources.” In the project, ecological conservation and research integrate the deployment of digital technologies and the design of prototypes supporting wildlife. Overtime, a network of sensors and cameras monitor wildlife changes and mining production, while design interventions welcome additional species and host human access. Miners, researchers, and tourists will be able to stay in temporary housing on-site. Attending to parameters like seasonal tourism, climate, and global commodity markets, the site remains publicly accessible nurturing the coexistence of wildlife, miners, researchers, locals and tourists and giving birth to a new generation of mining projects.

Following the conclusion of Ioneer’s mining operations after their 26-year plan plus ten-year extension, Rhyolite Ridge will become the US’s 64th National Park. In this future phase, the native flora and fauna reclaim the former mining site following decades of land conservation. While physical human presence at the new Rhyolite Ridge National Park dissipates with time, the site will become a living archive where the system of sensors and design interventions continue to harvest data to further steward the land.

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Although alternative energy resources, like lithium-ion batteries, are essential to shifting away from harmful fossil fuels, the mining practices involved in acquiring lithium are harmful to the environment and devastating to biodiversity. This project develops an approach to mining in Rhyolite Ridge that balances mining activities with ecological conservation, public access, and the coexistence of wildlife, miners, researchers, and tourists. Finally, the mining site is transformed into a National Park with ongoing conservation efforts.



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