Mineral withdrawal, LWCF miss Senate spending bill; senators say vote will come in January

Despite its failure Wednesday night, Montana’s two U.S. senators and conservationists are optimistic about pushing a public lands package through Congress in early January that includes a ban on new public land mining claims north of Yellowstone National Park and renewal of a popular conservation fund.

Republican Sen. Steve Daines and Democratic Sen. Jon Tester were part of a group of western lawmakers trying to attach a suite of public lands legislation to the spending bill the Senate passed Wednesday night. The package included the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act and permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Daines told the Chronicle that the package fell two votes shy of securing an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor, one of the two being Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. Daines said Lee wanted some changes to the bill and opposed the renewal of LWCF.

But Daines and Tester both say they’ve secured an agreement with Senate leadership that the package will have a floor vote in early January.

“We are going to take this same lands package and put it back on the floor of the U.S. Senate in the first couple of weeks in January,” Daines said in an interview.

Tester’s office issued a statement blaming Lee for the package’s failure, saying he blocked a potential vote of the full Senate. But he is optimistic that the close call is good news for the Yellowstone bill, which would permanently withdraw mineral rights from 30,000 acres of federal land in the mountains east of the Paradise Valley.

“The Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act has been years in the making and now Senate passage is in sight,” Tester said. “I will hold Congress accountable to our agreement and make sure that they deliver on their promise to permanently protect the doorstep of Yellowstone Park from mining that will hurt our economy and harm our clean water.”

The land included in the withdrawal is split between two areas near where companies are interested in mining for gold — one near Emigrant Peak behind Chico Hot Springs and the other near Jardine, close to the border of Yellowstone. Environmentalists and many locals have vocally opposed the two projects since they first surfaced in 2015. They believe blocking new claims will prevent the development of a large-scale mine, which they worry could harm the environment and the region’s tourism-based economy.

Earlier this year, the Department of Interior finalized a 20-year ban on new mining claims in the area, the maximum length for an administrative withdrawal.

Colin Davis, a member of the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, which backs the bill, said in a statement that the close call ensures they “will be in an even stronger position to get this done early next year.”

“We are thankful Montana’s delegation is working together to protect our outdoor economy and way of life and are confident we will all succeed together after some well-deserved rest this holiday season,” Davis said.

Daines has said he supports the bill and did sign on as a co-sponsor this week, following the construction of the entire public lands package. He said he always supported the bill and refrained from sponsoring it previously as “leverage to negotiate a package.”

Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte also supports the withdrawal and introduced a companion bill in the House. He spoke on the House floor Thursday and criticized the lack of action on the public lands legislation and President Donald Trump’s call for a border security measure.

“Montanans didn’t send me here to shut down the government. But they also didn’t send me here to let their priorities die in a lame duck session that is every part lame,” he said. “I stand here still, urging this body to take up a public lands package and secure the border.”

The entire delegation also supports the renewal of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a pot of money filled by offshore drilling royalties that has been used to pay for lands projects and city parks across the country. It expired on Sept. 30.

Several conservation groups issued statements Thursday morning decrying the failure of the renewal.