Montana Standard: Time to protect Paradise Valley

To find an amazing example of Montana grassroots action, look no further than the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act.

More than 360 businesses in Park County have united in the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition to protect the Paradise Valley between Livingston and Gardiner from large-scale mining development. At the request of the coalition, the Park County Commission and numerous individual local residents, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester introduced the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act four months ago to make permanent a two-year pause in mineral development on 30,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land. Part of this acreage is in Emigrant Gulch, where historic mining has long since been replaced by an economy based on agriculture, tourism, fishing, hunting and cross country skiing. The rest of the land that the coalition seeks to protect is on Crevice Mountain, right on the northern boundary of Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone’s porch

A company with Australian connections has sought to mine on Crevice Mountain. A small Canadian company has plans for exploratory drilling on private land near Emigrant Gulch.

The Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act would not apply to private land. However, because public land adjoins the two proposed gold mine sites, the legislation would effectively stop large-scale mine development in the heart of the Upper Yellowstone River Valley.

Last Wednesday Tester’s bill had a hearing before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests, and Mining.

“God doesn’t make places like this anymore, and we need to do what we can to protect them, and the jobs that come with them. Responsible natural resource development plays an important role in Montana’s economy, but there are simply some places where you just should not dig or drill, and the front porch of Yellowstone Park is one of those places,” Tester told the subcommittee on which Sen. Steve Daines serves.

Daines plans new bill

Daines agreed that: “The economy in this area thrives on our outdoor way of life.”

“I support the withdrawal,” Daines said repeatedly in a telephone interview Monday with The Billings Gazette, but he said that he plans to introduce his own bill, hopefully this fall.

“Jon’s bill will go nowhere,” Daines said. “We need a balanced bill.”

Daines said he is working with House and Senate energy committee chairs “looking at different options” to get a withdrawal provision that can reach President Trump’s desk. Daines said he couldn’t yet talk specifics about “different options” he is working on.

At the hearing on Wednesday, Daines questioned a Forest Service representative about the environmental assessment under way as part of the two-year pause on leasing the public land at Emigrant Gulch and Crevice Mountain. That assessment is expected to be completed in the fall of 2018.

Gateway businesses want to see Tester’s bill passed this calendar year, said Karrie Kahle, coalition spokeswoman at Chico Hot Springs.

Just last week, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality approved exploratory drilling for possible mining on private land in Emigrant Gulch. The DEQ has jurisdiction over mining on private lands, while mining on U.S. Forest Service land requires approval of that USDA agency.

The DEQ action “shows the urgency of getting the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act passed to protect the public land,” Kahle said.

Daines told The Gazette Monday that he understands the urgency, but wants to get a bill that will pass with bipartisan support. “We’re making progress, making some headway,” he said.

We call on Daines to stay focused on the protection of Yellowstone Gateway public lands and to steer a withdrawal through the Senate committee on which he serves and to passage as part of a bill that can be signed into law before Christmas.

In a letter sent to the Custer Gallatin National Forest earlier this year, Park County’s three commissioners summed up their support for permanently withdrawing these lands from mining: “Park County derives significant economic benefit from nearby, intact federal public lands. … The large-scale development of mineral resources in Park County has the potential to negatively impact natural resources, both during the life of the development and over the long term.”

Tester, Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte already know those facts. It’s time for all three to act together to protect Yellowstone’s northern gateway.