On July 20, a three-judge panel in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously to reverse a decision by the U.S. District Court in Sacramento that would have dismissed our lawsuit challenging devastating, polluting industrial geothermal fracking development in the Medicine Lake Highlands. The Ninth Circuit returned the case back to the trial court with directions to proceed with the litigation, which challenges the renewal of 26 geothermal leases in the Medicine Lake Highlands.

Almost exactly two years ago, District Court Judge John A. Mendez ruled to dismiss the lawsuit by claiming that the plaintiffs in the case — the Pit River Tribe, Mount Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center, Medicine Lake Citizens for Quality Environment, and the Native Coalition for Medicine Lake Highlands Defense — lacked standing to raise the lease issues under the Geothermal Steam Act (GSA). The Ninth Circuit panel found that Mendez ignored a section of the GSA that allows the lawsuit to go forward.

Represented by the Stanford Law Clinic, the Native and environmental plaintiffs raised numerous issues challenging the legality of the May 1998 decision to extend 26 leases owned by Calpine Corporation for 40 years. The lawsuit claims that in renewing the leases, BLM failed to comply with environmental and cultural preservation laws as well as with the government’s trust responsibility to Indian Tribes.

In remanding the case back to District Court, the Ninth Circuit said that the plaintiffs’ environmental and cultural claims needed to be carefully considered by the trial court.

This ruling is a victory for sanity. The Ninth Circuit set the matter straight that the public has a right to raise issues to protect public lands under the Geothermal Steam Act. It would be absurd to deny us a voice on behalf of the Medicine Lake Highlands’ outstanding scenic, cultural and hydrologic values. And by the same token, it would be absurd to deny that Native Americans have standing to speak for an area that was designated as a 113 square mile Native American Traditional Cultural District by the National Register of Historic Places.

In this time of drought and climate change, it is important to note that the vast pristine snow-fed aquifer that underlies the Medicine Lake Highlands emerges at the Fall River Springs, the largest spring system in California. From there over a million acre-feet of the purest waters flow reliably to Shasta Lake Reservoir, benefitting communities, a world class trout fishery, farmers, hydro projects and water districts throughout the state. This is a water resource that buffers the ups and downs of climate cycles because of the immense storage capacity (estimated at 20 to 40 million acre-feet) of the Medicine Lake volcanic formations.