Environmental Law Clinic Returns to the Ninth Circuit to End Geothermal Development on Sacred Tribal Lands

The Environmental Law Clinic represented its long-time Native American and environmental clients in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals this week, seeking to uphold the invalidation of 26 geothermal leases in the Pit River Tribe’s sacred Medicine Lake Highlands.

Medicine Lake and its surrounding Highlands contain stunning landscapes, from freshwater springs, lava flows, and volcanic peaks to fertile marshes, grasslands, and forests.  Dense forests across three contiguous National Forests support 400 species of wildlife, including bald eagles and northern spotted owls.  Waters flowing from the Highlands feed directly into the Sacramento River watershed – the sources of drinking water for millions of Californians.

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Panorama of the Glass Mountain geothermal area in the Medicine Lake Highlands

The Pit River Tribe and its members have a long history of using Medicine Lake and the Highlands for religious and cultural purposes.  For at least 10,000 years, members of the Pit River Tribe have used Medicine Lake and the Highlands for religious activities such as religious prayers and teaching, traditional shaman practices, life cycle ceremonies, collection of traditional foods, medicines, and materials, spiritual renewal, and quiet contemplation.

Geothermal exploration and development undermines the ability of tribal members to pursue these critical cultural practices that are rooted in the earth and waters of the Medicine Lake Highlands.

This Ninth Circuit appeal is the latest in a two-decades-long battle on behalf of the Tribe and other local environmental groups (Native Coalition For Medicine Lake Highlands Defense, Mount Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center, and Medicine Lake Citizens For Quality Environment) to protect the Medicine Lake Highlands from unlawful geothermal development.  In the 1980’s, the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) issued over three dozen geothermal leases in the highlands surrounding Medicine Lake under the Geothermal Steam Act, without adequate environmental review or any consultation with affected tribes.  In 1998, BLM illegally extended 26 of those leases for an additional 40 years, again without conducting required environmental analyses or consultation with the Tribe, and ELC filed suit to challenge those actions.  After years of delay, the federal trial court agreed in 2016, effectively invalidating those 26 geothermal lease extensions.  The government, but not the lessee, appealed that decision.

ELC students Sam Lazerwitz and Caleb Wright argued the appeal in the Ninth Circuit on May 14 in Seattle.  The opportunity to argue before the Ninth Circuit was “absolutely incredible,” Sam reported.  “Both Caleb and I really appreciated having so many of our clients in the courtroom to support us.  More importantly, it reminded both of us about how meaningful this case was for our clients and how important it is to protect the Medicine Lake Highlands.”  “It was an honor to represent the Pit River Tribe and help protect an area of such profound importance to its members,” Caleb said.  The video of the oral argument is available here.

New Lawsuit to End Remaining Geothermal Leases in Medicine Lake

In an effort to end the remaining handful of illegal geothermal leases in the Medicine Lake Highlands that were not part of the appeal, the Environmental Law Clinic also filed a new lawsuit last month on behalf of the Pit River Tribe and local environmental groups against the federal government and Calpine Corporation in the Northern District of California.  The new lawsuit seeks to invalidate the remaining federal geothermal leases within the Highlands, arguing that Calpine has violated federal law by failing to comply with the lease requirements for more than 25 years and that the federal government has unlawfully abdicated its obligation to oversee and terminate the leases for noncompliance.  ELC’s clients are seeking an order from the court directing the federal government to terminate Calpine’s lease rights.

These legal violations have allowed Calpine to passively hold federal lease rights as private corporate assets for decades, in contradiction to the applicable federal law, and to tie up tens of thousands of acres of public forestlands.  When Congress enacted the governing Geothermal Steam Act, it gave lessees a short window of time to either explore and develop geothermal resources in accordance with the public interest or to relinquish nonproducing leases so that the lands could be returned to the public and managed for other purposes under the multiple use mandates for national forests.

The suit alleges that Calpine has done neither of these things, casting a shadow over the public’s access to these pristine public forestlands and impeding the ability of the region’s tribes to engage in their religious and traditional cultural practices in the Medicine Lake volcanic caldera – a landscape that has been determined eligible for listing as a traditional cultural district on the National Register of Historic Places.  The lawsuit contends that it is long past time for the federal government to step up and exercise its mandatory oversight duties to terminate the remaining leases so that the full protections of federal law can operate.

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Clinic students Sam Lazerwitz, Caleb Wright, Daniel Rubin and Thomas Miller drafted the complaint in the new case, building off the earlier work of former clinic student Kirsten Dedrickson, ‘18.  (At left: Winter 2019 Clinic students meet with Clinic clients near Mt. Shasta.  Thomas Miller is pictured at far left; Daniel Rubin is second from the right.  At right: Fall 2018 Clinic students pause for a photo on a field trip to the geothermal leasing area. Sam Lazerwitz is second from the top left; Caleb Wright is at bottom left.)