Films by: Vincent Tremblay and Lauren Veen
Films by: Vincent Tremblay and Lauren Veen
“I don’t chain myself to trees or lay down in front of bulldozers or things like that,” says Carl Erquiaga. “But I think in order to effect any change, you have to be an activist.”
As he says this, Erquiaga sits in Harrison Pass, a rocky, rugged, and breathtakingly beautiful area in Nevada’s Ruby Mountains. Lately, the Ruby Mountains have inspired a lot of people like Erquiaga—as well as people unlike him—to take action.
Erquiaga, a lifelong Nevadan and hunting enthusiast, is part of a broad coalition that formed and has strengthened since 2017 to protect the Ruby Mountains’ remote, unspoiled landscape and ecosystem from the threat of oil and gas development. Made up primarily of hunters, anglers, outdoors lovers, Native Americans, and local businesspeople, the coalition and its allies represent a wide swath of people who share this in common: a passionate appreciate for nature and a fierce desire to protect one of their favorite places.
The group also has allies in conservation organizations. It’s a grantee of The Conservation Alliance, and regularly works with the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, according to Pam Harrington, a field director for the conservation group Trout Unlimited, and another person helping lead the charge to protect the Ruby Mountains. “Once a month we all get on a Zoom call and talk about this and we let them know what we’re doing, and they cheer us on and ask what they can do,” Harrington says. “It’s pretty awesome.”
“You have ranchers, the tribe, tourists, fishermen, and birdwatchers—we all want to protect the same thing.”
At stake is the future of an unspoiled glacier-carved mountain range that runs for nearly 100 miles in northeastern Nevada, halfway between Reno and Salt Lake City. The Ruby Mountains feature 10 peaks that reach more than 10,000 feet, including the 11,387-foot Ruby Dome. They are home to an abundance of fish and wildlife, including the rare Himalayan snowcock and Nevada’s largest herd of mule deer. Their snowmelt feeds vital local waterways including the Humboldt River and marshes in the Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
In recent years, however, lovers of the Ruby Mountains’ unique landscape and ecosystem have been alarmed by the specter of oil and gas exploration in the area. In 2017, with anxiety high about the fate of public lands under a new White House administration, a mysterious speculator expressed interest in oil and gas leases spanning almost 53,000 acres in the Ruby Mountains. Advocates for the landscape fear this could cause irreparable harm at a time when drought, wildfire, and other climate change-fueled factors are already threatening natural areas across the country. So, they are working to shield it from oil and gas exploration—permanently.
“You have ranchers, the tribe, tourists, fishermen, and birdwatchers—we all want to protect the same thing,” says Fermina Stevens, a member of the indigenous Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone Indians.
The coalition of people acting to protect the Ruby Mountains led to US Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada introducing legislation in 2019 to prohibit oil and gas development in the area. It stalled amid Washington gridlock, but she reintroduced an expanded version of the Ruby Mountains Protection Act in March 2021; supporters hope to see it passed by the current Congress under the Biden Administration. If passed into law, the bipartisan legislation, which is the largest conservation bill in Nevada history, would prevent oil and gas leasing across nearly 500,000 acres of land that includes the Ruby Mountains and the Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
Backers of the effort to protect the Ruby Mountains even view their coalition and the subsequent legislation as a potential case study for others across the US who might want to save natural areas where they live from exploitation and development.
“Whether it’s something small or something major, don’t be afraid to step up to the plate,” says Joe Doucette, an avid angler and the owner of a fly shop in the area. “Not everybody can get out and be a spokesperson, but if it comes time to sign a petition, to write a letter to your Congressperson, or come out to a volunteer project to pick up litter or re-plant in areas that have burned by fire—every little bit helps, and it does matter.”
Here are four profiles of coalition members working to protect the Ruby Mountains. They have varying backgrounds and motivations but are united in their motivation to safeguard an area they all hold dear.
Pam Harrington: ‘The Community Came Unglued’
When Pam Harrington talks about the Ruby Mountains, you can hear the reverence in her voice.
“The first time I came to the Rubies, I went over Harrison Pass and it blew me away,” she says. “You could see for hundreds of miles. It’s God’s country. When you’re up there on the Ruby Crest Trail, it blows your mind. You feel so small. It’s like you’re the only person out there in this enormity.”
Harrington is a field coordinator for Trout Unlimited, a national conservation group that focuses especially on coldwater fisheries and their watersheds.
“The Ruby Mountains provide ample clean, cold water, and that’s really rare in Nevada,” Harrington says. “And they feed the refuge, which is a series of springs and a myriad of lakes that are all connected. It’s really where the migratory waterfowl have a place to stop on their way from Mexico up to the Arctic.”
She fears what oil and gas exploration could mean for the area and the ecosystem it supports.
“If someone found oil and gas, say, to the south where there is some potential, they’re going to frack for it,” Harrington explains. “And potentially they could contaminate all of this water from fracking for oil and gas.”
Harrington and Trout Unlimited took a leadership role in organizing the coalition that formed to protect the Ruby Mountains after the possibility of oil and gas exploration arose in 2017.
“This whole campaign has been a journey,” she says. “53,000 acres were looked at and speculated to go up for lease. And you know what? The community came unglued.”
Communication and listening have been key to forming and maintaining the coalition of citizens working to protect the Ruby Mountains.
“I think our campaign for the Rubies is a good example of working together and being inclusive of everyone, and embracing the differences and being happy to have these conversations to find the common ground and push forward,” Harrington says.
It all has her feeling optimistic for the fate of this land she loves.
“The future of the Rubies looks amazing to me,” Harrington says. “We have wonderful land management agencies that watch out for this place. We have a Department of Wildlife that is doing amazing work as well, and we’ve got a groundswell of people that will fight to protect this place.”
Fermina Stevens: ‘The Circle of Life Isn’t Cliché’
For Fermina Stevens, a member of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone Indians, protecting the Ruby Mountains is about the area’s past as well as its future. Her ancestors tread paths through the area for untold generations.
“The Western Shoshone, before colonial settlement, there were thousands and thousands of us here,” Stevens says. “We were hunters and gatherers, so we traveled with the seasons, traveled with the animals, traveled wherever the food source was at the time. But we always kept our camps in the same place. So we always came back home, and home for us is the Ruby Mountains.”
The Ruby Mountains are traditionally called “Duka Doya” by the Shoshone, according to Stevens, which translates to “snow cap” or “snow top.” In more recent years, as climate change has accelerated, Stevens has wondered when people will come to a collective realization that over-exploitation of resources harms not just the land but human beings as well.
“The question is how much are we going to compromise before we understand that we’re really messing things up for ourselves,” she says.
Stevens has been active in the movement to protect the Ruby Mountains since the specter of drilling for oil and gas was first raised in 2017. She gave an interview on the subject to the Reno Gazette-Journal that year, and in 2019 traveled to Reno to rally with other conservationists against the proposal. She calls it “gratifying” to witness and be a part of the coalition that has formed to protect the area.
“It’s nice to know that there are people in different walks of life who are on the same page when it comes to the Ruby Mountains,” Stevens says. “We might see things from a different perspective, but it all comes back to the love of nature.”
Still, Stevens knows the effort to protect the area is part of a bigger battle.
“As important as the Ruby Mountains are to me and to the Shoshone people, there are many places out there also that are important, that are just as spectacular, just as beautiful,” she says.
It all ties back to the idea of humans protecting the environment in part to protect themselves.
“The circle of life isn’t cliché,” Stevens says. “It’s real, and it’s true, and we’re a part of it. We’re not separate from nature and the animals and the plants. We’re a part of it. We’re meshed together.”
Joe Doucette: ‘Hey, We’re Really Not That Different’
One of Joe Doucette’s favorite things about owning and operating the Elko Fly Shop at the base of the Ruby Mountains is the community his store creates. He knows many of his customers by name, and anglers frequently drop in just to chat about fishing conditions and recent catches. But Doucette is also realistic that a sense of camaraderie isn’t the only thing powering his small business.
“The Ruby Mountains, not just the mountains themselves, but the water that comes off the mountains, that feeds the streams—it’s probably responsible for at least half of my business,” he says.
Doucette, who also works as a public information officer for the Nevada Department of Wildlife, worries about the impact oil and gas could have on that water supply and the ecosystem it supports.
“You lose that water that comes off the Ruby Mountains, you lose the fish habitat,” he explains. “You lose the fish habitat, you lose the fish. You lose the fish, you lose the fishermen.”
Anglers and hunters want to see the area protected so it can continue to be a habitat that supports a robust wildlife population. Doucette knows firsthand how essential the area is to recreationists—and vice versa, as outdoors enthusiasts prop up the local economy, while the fees paid by hunters and anglers help support wilderness management.
“Whether it’s hunting, fishing, backpacking, hiking, camping, birdwatching, photography—it brings a lot of people here,” Doucette says, describing how Elko especially bustles during the fall hunting season. “And whether it’s hotels or shops like mine, it’s a lifeblood.”
“I think a lot of people who come from different backgrounds have realized, ‘Hey, we’re really not that different.”
Doucette’s desire to see the Ruby Mountains protected is as personal as it is professional, though. He’s an avid outdoorsman himself, and regularly brings his young granddaughters camping in the area. He wants it to remain pristine and wild as they grow older. That’s where the broad coalition working to defend the region comes in.
“Even though we all come from different backgrounds where we often never agree on some things, this is one thing we can agree on,” Doucette says. “This is one thing that we all can say, ‘Hey, look, this needs to be saved.’ And so we have found common ground to work together. I think a lot of people who come from different backgrounds have realized, ‘Hey, we’re really not that different.'”
Carl Erquiaga: ‘Hunters Tend to be Strong Conservationists Without Even Realizing It’
Carl Erquiaga has been hunting in the Ruby Mountains since he was a teenager in the early 1970s. Today, he’s a field representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which works to preserve quality places in the US for people to hunt and fish. That past and present connection to the Ruby Mountains drives his desire to see the area protected from oil and gas interests.
“Wildlife can’t live without a habitat that’s suitable,” Erquiaga says. “If you break up that habitat or change the habitat, it can become less functional and it won’t support as many animals.”
That’s why many hunters are wilderness defenders—which might run counter to assumptions by non-hunters, and even surprise some hunters.
“Hunters tend to be strong conservationists without even realizing it,” Erquiaga says.
He wants to see the Ruby Mountains protected not just for their value to hunters and anglers, but also for their striking beauty and unique characteristics.
“It’s totally different from what people from other parts of the country think when think of Nevada,” Erquiaga explains. “They don’t realize there are these 11,000-foot peaks and huge granite cliffs and all this wildlife. They think of Nevada as being a large desert—and in Nevada it’s so diverse, it’s anything but a large desert.”
Erquiaga’s Nevada roots run deep, dating back to when his grandparents immigrated to the state from Spain’s Basque Country in the early 1900s. His appreciation for nature was fostered by his own parents, and has since been passed along to subsequent generations.
“I was raised with a connection to the land,” Erquiaga says. “My father was raised that way. He started me out being respectful of the land as a kid, and took me hunting. I’ve done that with my children and I hope to do that with my grandchildren, too.”
That’s partly why he sees the effort to protect the Ruby Mountains as something bigger than just the Rubies themselves.
“I believe we’ll be advocating for the rest of Nevada,” Erquiaga says, “if we can advocate for this and change the thinking that some things are not worth developing.”
Bank of the West would like to thank The Conservation Alliance for its collaboration on this project. Bank of the West is the only major US bank that is a member of The Conservation Alliance.