Gazette opinion: Protect Park County's outdoor assets

Billings Gazette

Park County’s thriving economy is rooted in spectacular landscapes — the cold, clear river that tumbles out of Yellowstone National Park through a whitewater canyon and irrigated valley framed by the Absaroka and Gallatin mountains.

Nonresident tourists spent $196 million in the county in 2014.

The fishing industry alone netted $70 million in direct spending.

Gross receipts were $30 million from livestock sales and $15 million from crops among the county’s 564 farms and ranches.

Unemployment runs less than the state average and has been trending lower while personal income is above average.

The county ranks in the top 6 percent of non-metro counties nationally for its percentage of creative entrepreneurs. Proprietors and self-employed folks account for 39 percent of all jobs in Park County.

These statistics are presented in a report prepared recently by economist Larry Swanson of the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana. The Yellowstone Gateway Coalition commissioned Swanson’s study because potential threats to their growing outdoors economy. The coalition members are hundreds of businesses whose livelihoods depend on the natural attractions that draw hunters, anglers, hikers and tourists. These businesses depend on keeping tranquil places intact.

Trouble in Paradise

A Canadian company interested in gold mining is seeking a permit to drill 46 exploratory holes in private tracts at Emigrant Gulch near Chico Hot Springs. Other investors are seeking a permit to explore for gold less than a mile from Yellowstone Park’s border near Gardiner.

“My main concern is that it (mining) would destroy my business and my neighbors’ businesses,” Bryan Wells told Gazette Outdoor Editor Brett French. Wells, 61, rents out vacation cabins in Emigrant Gulch, where he has lived for 43 years and raised a family.

Swanson’s study validated Wells’ concern, concluding: “The chief threat to area quality of life and economic well-being would be any large-scale activities that negatively impact area amenities and environmental attributes that are the foundation of the area’s economic vitality.”

In short, the strong outdoor economy of this spectacular Yellowstone gateway is far more precious than the limited, short-term profits of gold mining. Mining brings with it traffic on rural roads and road building on public land. Extracting diffuse gold from large amounts of earth creates large open pits or deep mines that bring acidic ore to the surface.

Business coalition

The Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition asked the Montana congressional delegation to help pass legislation to put public lands in the valley permanently off limits to mining. Rep. Ryan Zinke and Sen. Jon Tester have agreed that this place deserves protection.

“I strongly support private property rights and responsible mineral development but Montana is the Last Best Place for a reason,” Zinke said. “There are some places that are great to mine and other places that are just too precious.”

“There are just some places that are too special to dig or drill, and the front porch of Yellowstone Park is one of those places,” Tester said. “The effort protecting the Paradise Valley is led by the local community and I am proud to join these business owners, families, and land owners who have come together to preserve one of America’s most unique landscapes.”

A spokeswoman for Daines told The Gazette that the senator will continue to listen to and work with the local community.

The Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition wants a deal along the lines of the North Fork Watershed agreement that permanently protected certain public lands on the west side of Glacier National Park.

Now is the time to protect the outdoor assets that make Yellowstone’s north gateway a great place to live, work and grow diverse businesses. Tester and Zinke have recognized the intrinsic and economic values in this public land. Daines should join them; it will take a united delegation to move a protective bill through Congress.

Last month, the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition asked the U.S. Forest Service to administratively withdraw 34,000 acres of forest land in Park County from mineral development. Such a temporary withdrawal would give Congress time to work on a permanent protection in law.

The prospect of new gold mining in Paradise Valley demands protective action, because the long-antiquated Mining Law of 1872 is still the law. If the Forest Service and Congress don’t act, a law written 144 years ago to promote mining may harm Yellowstone’s northern gateway economy forever.