Gazette opinion: Protection urgent for Yellowstone Gateway

by Billings Gazette

With time running short on temporary protection for public land north of Yellowstone National Park, the U.S. Forest Service last week released the draft environmental assessment needed to withdraw federal minerals from mining for up to 20 years.

The protection process requires the Forest Service to complete that document, but additional steps are needed to keep 30,000 acres of forest land unimpaired by large-scale gold mining that two firms with foreign financing are threatening.

The public lands at issue adjoin two proposed mine exploration sites: one at Emigrant about 25 miles south of Livingston on the east side of the Yellowstone River, the other at Crevice Mountain on the northern border of Yellowstone Park east of Gardiner. For the past few years, hundreds of residents of Paradise Valley and neighboring areas have asked federal authorities to prevent commercial mining by putting public minerals off limits to leasing.

Former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell issued a two-year pause on any mineral leasing in Paradise Valley effective Nov. 22, 2016. Although the land is managed by the USDA Forest Service, the underground minerals are the purview of the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management. Secretary Ryan Zinke will decide whether to extend the mineral withdrawal past Nov. 22.

“We really want this to be done and completed by then,” said Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition spokeswoman Karrie Kahle. “The clock is ticking.”

With more than 400 members, the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition has led efforts to prevent mining on these two tracts of public land. The mineral withdrawal wouldn’t apply to private land or existing mining claims.

“The Forest Service should be commended for producing a detailed and comprehensive plan to help us prevent pollution of our clean water and the erosion of our local businesses and way of life,” said Dale Sexton, a Livingston business owner and founding member of the Gateway Coalition. “Montana businesses will pursue the maximum protections allowed by the EA to divert foreign mining companies from developing industrial mines on the doorstep to Yellowstone National Park.”

Zinke supported the Yellowstone Gateway mineral withdrawals in statements he made while Montana’s lone congressman and again since he became Interior secretary. We call on Zinke to put his words into action by approving the maximum protection he can: a 20-year withdrawal order issued before Nov. 22.

The bipartisan Gateway Coalition will continue to seek action from Montana’s delegation because only Congress can permanently protect this public land from mining that is otherwise controlled by the long-antiquated Mining Law of 1872.

To their credit, Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Greg Gianforte have introduced bills to permanently protect the 30,000 acres split between Emigrant and Crevice Mountain. However, Sen. Steve Daines has effectively blocked Tester’s bill, which had a hearing in a Senate subcommittee Daines chairs.

Oddly, Daines’ office issued a press release Thursday quoting the senator saying he is “glad … the U.S. Forest Service is following the local community’s wishes to protect this area that is critical to Montana’s outdoor economy. I will continue to explore opportunities to move forward with permanent protection.”

So far Daines is all talk and no action. He need not “explore;” Tester and Gianforte have already put their constituents’ request into legislation. With Daines’ support, those public lands could have been protected in the big budget bill that passed last month. Yellowstone Gateway protection won’t become permanent unless Daines acts. Montanans are watching what Daines does – not only what he says about Paradise Valley.