Legislation including mineral withdrawal north of Yellowstone, LWCF to get vote in U.S. Senate next week

Permanently banning new mining claims north of Yellowstone National Park and renewing a popular conservation fund are closer to reality, as the U.S. Senate plans to take up a broad lands bill including the two measures next week.

The bill, S. 47, contains a variety of public lands legislation across the country including two measures that have been important to the Montana congressional delegation — the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act and the reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Representatives from the offices of Montana’s two senators have told the Chronicle the bill will hit the Senate floor early next week for debate with a vote to follow soon after.

The package nearly passed late last year but was blocked by lawmakers who didn’t agree with some of the bill’s provisions, namely Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. At the time, both Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Republican Sen. Steve Daines said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to hold a vote on the lands legislation in early 2019.

The government shutdown consumed all legislative energy during the month of January, but now that it’s over legislation is moving again. Senators were considering a Middle East policy measure Thursday, but spokespeople for both Tester and Daines said they expected the lands legislation would be considered next.

Debate is likely to begin Tuesday, according to Tester’s office, and it will likely remain open for more than a full day. A vote will come afterward. If passed in the Senate, the bill would head to the Democrat-controlled House.

This week, Daines sent a letter urging Senate leaders to bring the lands bill up for a vote. He praised its advance to the floor in a statement on Thursday. 

“From permanent reauthorization of LWCF to the passage of the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, it’s long overdue that we move on these Montana priorities,” Daines said.

Tester, who was one of several senators pushing for a vote on the package earlier this month, also praised the advancement of the two measures as part of the package. 

“I’ve spent years working to push these bills across the finish line because they’ll strengthen opportunities for folks to hunt, hike, float, and fish Montana’s treasured outdoor places for generations to come,” Tester said. 

Passing the bill would deliver a win for the locals and environmentalists opposed to two mining proposals in the mountains north of Yellowstone National Park — one near Jardine, by the park border, and one directly behind Chico Hot Springs.

Opponents of the two mining proposals worry the work could lead to large-scale industrial mines that could harm the environment and the region’s tourism-based economy. The companies hoping to develop mines there dismiss their concerns.

In 2018, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ordered a 20-year moratorium on new mining claims on roughly 30,000 acres of public land near where the two companies have staked claims. The lands package would make that ban permanent, which mining opponents believe will hamper any company’s ability to mine profitably. 

Tester and Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte both introduced versions of the bill in 2017, and committee hearings were held in both the House and the Senate. The pair also introduced the bills earlier this year. Daines has also signed on as a sponsor.

The trio also supports reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a pot of offshore drilling royalties. It has been used to fund conservation projects, swimming pools and city parks across the country.

The fund expired at the end of September 2018. Conservation groups have been calling for its renewal ever since.