Tester introduces bill to make Paradise Valley mining ban permanent

by Michael Wright , Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester on Tuesday delivered on a promise he made in November by introducing a bill in the U.S. Congress that would permanently ban new mining claims on two swaths of federal land north of Yellowstone National Park.

The bill, called the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, would permanently ban new mining claims on public land near where two mining companies have asked the state for permission to look for gold on private land.

In a conference call, Tester said allowing new mining claims on federal land in those areas would let the companies expand and ultimately lead to a large-scale mine, which some worry could harm the environment. Tester said that because the Paradise Valley’s economy depends on outdoor recreation, such an expansion needs to be stopped.

“An operation like that would put the local economy at risk,” Tester said.

The bill wouldn’t affect those companies’ private land claims or the claims they’ve staked on federal land. But Michael Werner, the head of Crevice Mining Group, said that if passed, the bill would shorten the life of his potential mine. His company’s plans to mine near the border of Yellowstone are one of the targets of the bill. He said his operation won’t have a negative impact on the environment, and that banning new mining claims permanently would result in lost tax revenue for the state of Montana.

“Imagine the taxes and wages of a group of people up there,” Werner said.

The bill’s introduction comes months after the Obama administration put in place a two-year ban on new mining claims in the area. Federal officials are analyzing whether they should extend the ban to last as long as 20 years.

Mineral rights can only be withdrawn permanently through legislation. When the temporary ban on new claims was announced, Tester said he would be introducing this bill.

The ban targets Crevice Mining Group and Lucky Minerals Inc., both of which have plans to look for gold on private land. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality released a draft environmental analysis of Lucky’s exploratory plans near Emigrant Peak last year, finding that the project isn’t likely to have a significant environmental impact. They hope to release a final version of the document this summer.

Crevice hold’s a small miner’s exemption for mining near the town of Jardine. The company applied for an exploratory drilling permit, but DEQ twice found their application to be insufficient and asked it to resubmit.

The company hasn’t responded to the second deficiency notice, and Werner said they won’t do so until they know they need to. He said they are looking at the results from previous exploration projects there and haven’t decided if they need to do more drilling in the area.

Both the Republican and Democrat candidates running for Montana’s U.S. House seat have announced that they are opposed to the mines in the Paradise Valley. Democrat Rob Quist said in a press release that he planned to introduce legislation similar to what Tester introduced Tuesday.

Republican Greg Gianforte said in an emailed statement that he opposes the two mines, but that it might be tough to get Tester’s bill through both chambers and signed into law.

“I understand the intent of Sen. Tester’s bill, but in reality, it will be a difficult piece of legislation to build consensus around unless we deal with property rights in the area,” he said in the statement, adding that if elected, he would work toward finding a solution.

Tester said he had passed the bill on to Republican Sen. Steve Daines, but had not heard back. Daines did not express support in an emailed statement, saying he worried about its impact to private property rights.

“I grew up fly fishing the Yellowstone and my kids shot their first elk in the Paradise Valley,” Daines said in the statement. “We need to protect this Montana treasure while also respecting property rights and that’s what’s missing if we want to see this bill signed into law.”

The owner of Chico Hot Springs, a real estate broker and the president of Simms Fishing Products, joined Tester on the call Tuesday. They said they were grateful that Tester had introduced the bill.

“The Yellowstone is one of those critical rivers to our business,” said KC Walsh of Simms.