(EnviroNews Montana) — Washington D.C. — EnviroNews Montana Exclusive: On April 25, 2017, U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) introduced the “Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act” (Yellowstone Act) — a bill seeking to permanently ban mining on 30,000 public acres in the Paradise Valley of Montana, just outside Yellowstone National Park (Yellowstone). The legislation follows up on a two-year pause on gold and other types of mining in the region, announced in 2016. If signed into law, the Yellowstone Act will protect public land in the Custer Gallatin National Forest adjacent to Yellowstone and the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness.
“The Upper Yellowstone River contributes $70 million a year to the economy of Park County through fishing alone. This pristine waterway supports some of the best recreation and some of the most important agricultural areas in the West and brings with it economic stability and good-paying jobs,” Tester told EnviroNews Montana in an email for this exclusive report. He continued:
The proposed mines in the area risk the water quality of this critical river. Cities and towns downstream rely on the Yellowstone for drinking water and a lot of agriculture producers irrigate from the Yellowstone. Water is a finite resource and we must protect it for future generations, which is why I introduced [the Yellowstone Act] to protect the Paradise Valley from large-scale mining.
Tester also said Yellowstone as a whole is “a huge economic driver” for Montana and that more than 4 million people visit Yellowstone annually “to take in its breathtaking views.”
“These visitors contribute $196 million per year to the economy of Park County, Montana,” he added. “That’s why a proposed mine on the doorstep of Yellowstone is so dangerous. It threatens jobs and the economy in the area.”
The Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition (The Coalition), a group of Montana businesses and landowners, has been an important partner to Tester in protecting the area surrounding Yellowstone from mining. It was The Coalition that originally requested a “mineral withdrawal,” which started the two-year mining pause, and could protect the lands in question for up to 20 years if finalized, according to environmental law firm Earthjustice.
A mineral withdrawal limits mining on specific public lands in order to maintain other public values or purposes in the area. The Coalition’s Park County Economic Report describes the thriving local economy and how it is intimately interwoven with Yellowstone’s natural bounty and provides the stats Tester quoted above.
Tracy Raich, Owner of Raich Montana Properties, described The Coalition’s work in this way in a Tester press release:
We are advocates of property rights. We are not anti-mining. We understand that there are places to mine, but the door step of [Yellowstone] isn’t one of them. The spectacular public lands, agricultural heritage, clean rivers and streams surrounding this area give the region a competitive advantage. The lifeblood of our economy is tied to these high-quality natural resources.
The two proposed gold mine locations near Yellowstone are known as the Crevice and Emigrant mining districts. Tester’s Yellowstone Act would permanently withdraw federal mineral rights on 30,000 acres and prohibit the expansion of new proposed mines onto unclaimed public land.
Mining companies Lucky Minerals and Crevice Mining Group are seeking permission to explore for gold on private lands in the area, but according to Yellowstone Insider, Tester said any large extraction projects “would need a lot of land to expand, since the private parcels are relatively small and surrounded by federal lands. The legislation will take away the incentive to mine in the region, in effect stopping large mining close to the Paradise Valley.”
EnviroNews asked Tester how much momentum he thought he could gather for the Yellowstone Act and whether he thought Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke would support it. To that, the Senator responded:
I am hopeful that Secretary Zinke will help push this bill forward. As [a] Congressman, Secretary Zinke supported the bill and now it’s my hope that by working together we can get Senator Daines (R-MT) on board so we can get a hearing in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Yellowstone Insider reports Tester stated he will broach companion legislation with whoever wins Zinke’s former seat in the May 25 special election. Tester also recently launched an email fundraising campaign seeking public support, sharing this compelling narrative:
Imagine loading your family into the car for a trip to Yellowstone. Sleeping bags in the trunk. Kids in the back seat. On your way to the gate, you look out over the landscape and see — mining equipment. I don’t think it’s a good idea either.
While Tester sees passing the Yellowstone Act as the crucial “first step in protecting the doorstep to Yellowstone National Park,” he told EnviroNews he would also “like to see Congress invest in addressing the maintenance backlog that is plaguing all our parks. In Yellowstone alone, the unmet maintenance needs total $632 million.”
In related news, on April 26, 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order instructing Zinke to review 27 national monument designations made under the Antiquities Act since Jan. 1, 1996. A public comment period is now open – the deadline is May 26 for Bears Ears National Monument and July 10 for all others. The Center for Biological Diversity urges the public to defend Bears Ears and all of the monuments by signing a letter to Zinke on its site.
On May 15, WildEarth Guardians (Guardians) revealed Zinke is dismissing the thousands of comments entered before May 11. Guardians encourages monument supporters to submit or re-submit their comments and also offers a signable letter to Zinke on its website.
Tester had this to say to EnviroNews about the monument review:
I don’t think there’s any harm popping the hood and taking a look to make sure things are working for folks in rural America. However, if the outcome rolls back public access and undermines the outdoor economy surrounding these treasured places, I’ll be the first person to defend our Montana way of life.
OTHER GREAT ENVIRONEWS REPORTS ON YELLOWSTONE AND SURROUNDING AREAS: