Tester gins up support for Yellowstone mining claim ban

by Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Michael Wright

After failing to attach the measure to a federal spending package last week, Montana’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester told a crowd of supporters Wednesday that the fight to ban new mining claims on a swath of public land north of Yellowstone National Park isn’t over.

Speaking at a rally at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds on Wednesday, Tester urged the crowd of about 200 to pressure he and the two Republican members of Montana’s congressional delegation to push forward the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act.

“You guys are going to keep doing your job and we will do our job in Washington, D.C.,” Tester said. “We’re going to make sure that that 30,000 acres is going to be withdrawn.”

The rally was meant to gin up support for the bill, which would permanently block new mining claims on 30,000 acres of public land in the mountains east of the Paradise Valley near where two mining companies have staked claims. Opponents of the two companies worry they could harm the environment and the region’s tourism-dependent economy.

It came just days after Tester blamed Montana’s Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines for the bill’s omission from the federal spending package passed last week. Daines disagreed with Tester’s criticism, instead blaming Senate Democratic leadership for blocking the measure.

Tester, who is running for re-election, didn’t directly criticize Daines during his speech Wednesday but later said he wants Daines to sign on as a cosponsor of the legislation.

In an emailed statement, a Daines spokesperson didn’t say why he hasn’t cosponsored the bill but said “finger pointing” won’t get it passed.

“Moving any land management bill through both the Senate and the House frequently requires compromise among members with diverse priorities, and that has proven no different with Yellowstone,” the spokesperson said. “Sen. Daines is committed to using whatever vehicle is available to move Yellowstone forward.”

Locals and environmentalists have been calling for a permanent withdrawal for more than a year. They believe it will hamper the potential development of industrial-scale mines.

One company, Lucky Minerals, plans to drill for gold on private land as soon as this summer in Emigrant Gulch, a canyon directly south of Chico Hot Springs. The other, Crevice Mining Group, wants to look for gold on a mountain near Jardine, just a few miles from the border with Yellowstone. Both argue that their operations would be safe and could be a boon to the local economy.

In 2016, the Obama administration issued a two-year ban on new claims near the two areas. A decision on whether to extend that for as long as 20 years is expected later this year. A ban can only become permanent through legislation.

Both Tester and Montana’s Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte have introduced bills to make the ban permanent. A Senate committee heard Tester’s bill last summer, but it hadn’t moved until last week, when Tester said it was nearly included in the budget deal.

Tracy Raich, a real estate broker and member of the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, said the fact that the bill was close to being included in the budget deal should be considered a step forward.

“It’s a testament to how far we’ve come and how effective it can be when Montanans work together in a bipartisan way,” Raich said.

Rebecca Henson, owner of Wildflour Bakery in Emigrant, also spoke at the rally. She called on Daines to sign onto the bill as a sponsor, saying “it’s the right thing to do for our state.”

“Protecting a place as special as Paradise Valley is no time to stick to party lines,” Henson said.

Tester said there will be more chances later this year to attach the bill to larger pieces of legislation, including a potential infrastructure bill and the next round of budget talks.

“There will always be opportunities,” he said. “Just got to be ready to strike when the iron will be hot.”

The bill is among a number of measures the delegation has been working to pass, including a bill designating East Rosebud Creek as Wild and Scenic and one securing federal recognition for the Little Shell Tribe. A Daines spokesperson said those bills are at varying stages of the legislative process, and that the ones farthest along are more likely to be attached to larger bills.