Gazette opinion: Quit stalling, save Montana’s Paradise Valley

by Billings Gazette

Leaders of the Yellowstone Gateway Coalition held a press conference last week to call on Montana’s congressional delegation to work together to get a Paradise Valley land provision in a larger must-pass bill before Christmas. The coalition of Park County businesses and local government leaders wants 30,370 acres of public forest withdrawn from potential development while two mining companies are seeking permits to start exploration.

Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester, and Rep. Greg Gianforte have said they want to protect Paradise Valley as area residents have been asking for years. But only Tester has done more than talk. Tester’s proposed Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act had a hearing earlier this year in a Senate committee Daines chairs. Daines told The Gazette in July that Tester’s bill won’t pass the GOP-controlled Senate.

In a telephone interview in July, Daines said he would introduce his own legislation to halt mineral development on public land at Emigrant Gulch and Crevice Mountain. Back in July, Daines said he hoped to introduce his bill this fall.

The Gazette reached out to Daines’ office again last week and received an emailed response from a Daines spokeswoman: “The last conservation measure passed by Congress advocated for the protection of the North Fork Protection Act, which was championed by the senator only to become law as part of a large public lands package that had support from a diverse group of stake holders. If this is to become law before year’s end, a similar coalition needs to be developed. It will likely take more time before that develops, however, the senator is working hard to find a path towards that end.”

Later, Daines himself phoned to say that he is working to get the Paradise Valley withdrawal paired with release of about 500,000 acres of Montana Wilderness Study Areas “that aren’t suitable for wilderness.” He plans to introduce his WSA release bill by year’s end, but acknowledged that it’s more likely to pass a year from now than to pass next month. Daines envisions getting support for Paradise Valley land protection from Republicans by releasing WSAs. He declined to say which WSAs will be in his bill.

“A lot of House members don’t like mineral withdrawals,” Daines said. “I think this is a reasonable thing to do in Montana.”

Daines’ Montana constituents are pushing for a mineral development withdrawal on 30,370 acres of Custer National Forest. They built a coalition of more than 400 businesses and organizations in a county with a population of 16,000. The coalition includes the bipartisan county commission, city and rural residents, people in agriculture and people whose livelihood depends on tourism, hunting and fishing. Aren’t they important enough for Daines to champion their cause without getting an otherwise unrelated and much bigger land deal in return?

Paradise Valley needs a “clean bill” that simply and permanently withdraws federal public lands from mining at Emigrant Gulch along the Upper Yellowstone River and around Crevice Mountain at Yellowstone Park’s northern border.

Both Daines and Gianforte live in Bozeman, less than an hour’s drive from the beautiful river valley they are being asked to preserve. They must spearhead its protection. Tester has done what he can as a minority lawmaker. If the Yellowstone Gateway is a priority for Daines, he can protect it legislatively this year – or next – without marrying it to another land deal. Gianforte should help.