Montana’s senior senator has taken the lead in the fight against proposed mines in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem by introducing legislation that would withdraw federal mining rights north of Yellowstone National Park.
On Monday, Sen. Jon Tester introduced the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, a short but concise bill withdrawing 30,000 acres of the Emigrant Crevice area from lands that are subject to federal mine leases.
The act is in response to the recent efforts of two companies to develop gold mines in the Beartooth-Absaroka Mountains east of the Paradise Valley and the Yellowstone River.
When the mining companies started showing up about two years ago, Park County residents and national park advocates organized a resistance to the mines, speaking out at public meetings and sponsoring media campaigns. The mines, which would produce gold mainly for jewelry, could threaten water quality and quantity in the Paradise Valley.
For example, the proposed mine above the Chico Hot Springs Resort could affect the groundwater, causing the loss of the hot springs and the resort’s business. Fishing guides worry about mine pollution making its way down to disrupt or destroy the Yellowstone River’s blue ribbon trout fishery. Farmers and ranchers are concerned about mines affecting or reducing their water. Meanwhile, others worry increased truck traffic and mine excavation could blight the area, reducing the attractiveness for tourists.
“Hundreds of businesses and local residents support this collaborative legislation because it protects jobs and preserves our outdoor way of life,” Tester said in a release. “Responsible natural resource development plays an important role in Montana’s economy, but there are simply some places where you just should not dig or drill, and the doorstep of Yellowstone Park is one of those places.”
Last fall, the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the National Park Service, and the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the U.S. Forest Service, instituted a two-year timeout on gold exploration or mining while considering more of a permanent ban on public land outside Yellowstone Park.
The ban is inching through the public process and some question whether the Trump administration could lift the timeout or stop the public process. Beth Kampschror of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition is optimistic that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will allow the process to continue.
“The end game of that (lease) withdrawl depends on him, but he has publically opposed the mines,” Kampschror said.
Still, locals are nervous about whether the agencies will follow through, so more than 300 local businesses of the bipartisan Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition turned to Tester for legislative action.
“Legislation is needed to permanently prevent private corporations from industrializing public lands in the heart of the Yellowstone ecosystem. The introduction of legislation is a crucial first step, and now we must all fight for Congressional approval of this critical protection for some of our nation’s most-prized wild lands,” said Earthjustice attorney Jenny Harbine.
Tester’s bill prompted praise from a number of conservation groups and outdoor businesses, including Simms Fishing Products, Fly Fishers International and the National Parks Conservation Association. Even the Park County commissioners weighed in.
"The withdrawal will go a long way toward sustaining the diversity of our local economy while protecting resources critical to the health of that economy. The withdrawal also helps maintain the long term viability of local public finance revenues while respecting the integrity of property rights," said commission chair Steve Caldwell.