Johnathan Hettinger -
Friday, March 29, 2019

Bryan Wells, owner of Emigrant Creek Cabins and a founding member of the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, stands in front of a home he’s building up Emigrant Gulch on Thursday. (Enterprise photo by Nate Howard)

In Bryan Wells’ backyard, you can see a grizzly bear, a black bear, a grey wolf, a mountain lion, a wolverine, a Canada lynx, an elk, a deer, a moose, a bighorn sheep, a mountain goat, a golden eagle, a bald eagle and a pika. You can drink clear water, running cold just hours after melting from mountain snow. You can retrieve naturally formed ice from between two rocks, in the heat of July. You can even walk to Chico Hot Springs Resort.

“I don’t go anywhere,” said Wells, who runs a vacation rental business at Old Chico and has been east of Montana twice in his life. “Why would I?”

Wells’ backyard is Emigrant Gulch, a deep ravine running along a creek next to Emigrant Peak — one of the most prominent mountains in the Absarokas, the mountain range that comprises much of Yellowstone National Park. The gulch is in the Custer Gallatin National Forest, managed by the U.S. Forest Service and connected to Yellowstone.

That’s what was at stake when two companies — Canada-based Lucky Minerals and Washingtonbased Crevice Mountain Mining Corporation — announced plans in 2015 to mine for gold just north of Yellowstone National Park.

That got Wells moving. At first, he went to public meetings in Emigrant and Livingston. Then, to events in Bozeman and Billings to remind Sen. Steve Daines, then-Rep. Ryan Zinke and Rep. Greg Gianforte of the cause. Eventually, the cause took him to D.C. — on the train, because he doesn’t like flying — to lobby to stop the mines.

Wells wasn’t alone. The reaction of people from Gardiner to Livingston was swift: Mining was not welcome, and the community would do anything it could to stop it.

‘Came together for place’

It’s a unicorn of an environmental issue — one that conservationists search for their entire career but may not find. It mobilized everyone. Park County and Paradise Valley have an outdoor recreation-based economy that relies on clean water, crisp air and intact viewsheds.

No matter where you come down on mining, on conservation, on politics, establishing industrial scale gold mines at the doorstep of Yellowstone National Park and at the headwaters of the Yellowstone River doesn’t make sense, dozens of people across the political spectrum told The Enterprise.

The effort to stop the mines became the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, a collection of more than 400 businesses opposed to the gold mines. The coalition did everything from drafting a “walkaway Lucky” letter, politely but deliberately telling Lucky Minerals it was not welcome in the community, to rallying thousands of public comments against the mine, to sending members to Washington, D.C., to lobby to stop the government from allowing mining on public lands. Members — Democrats and Republicans, fly fishing guides and real estate agents, wildlife photographers and former mining officials — pushed politicians from all sides to support their effort.

“We don’t have a party line,” said Colin Davis, owner of Chico Hot Springs and a founding member of the coalition. “We just came together for the place.”

In the coalition, Wells, a diehard Republican, became friends with liberal environmentalists — “people I never would have talked to” in his words — to unite to stop the mines.

“In the time I’ve lived here, I don’t think I’ve ever seen as organized an effort and certainly not one that spanned that breadth of political perspective,” said Park County Commission Chairman Steve Caldwell, who took his first mountain bike ride in the area up Emigrant Gulch.

The coalition was able to get the attention of Montana’s entire Congressional delegation, Gov. Steve Bullock and two separate presidential administrations. In November 2016, then-Sec. of the Interior Sally Jewell announced a two-year withdrawal of mining rights in 30,000 acres of the Custer Gallatin National Forest. In Oct. 2018, then-Sec. Ryan Zinke extended the moratorium to 20 years.

And this month, the coalition celebrated a final and permanent victory: the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act. The act, introduced by Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, permanently banned mining on 30,000 acres of Custer Gallatin National Forest, where the two proposed mines are located. The celebration was a culmination of years of effort by the coalition, starting in June 2015 and ending when the law was part of a sweeping public lands package signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 12.

While the gold mines still have leases on private lands, the act prevents them from expanding onto public lands, a step that advocates hope could stop them from becoming industrial scale mines. Lucky Minerals did not respond to requests to comment for this article, but has previously said that it will continue despite the withdrawal. Crevice Mining Company Managing Partner Mike Warner told The Enterprise they will not be affected by the legislation.

“This is not about protecting land. It’s about preserving it for a few individuals,” Lucky Minerals CEO John Mears told The Enterprise in October.

Businesses’ response

When Lucky Minerals first announced it planned to build a gold mine up Emigrant Gulch, Karrie Kahle was working as special events coordinator at Chico Hot Springs. The mine would require heavy equipment driving through the resort’s parking lot. If anything went wrong, Kahle worried that the mine could pollute the Yellowstone River, not to mention what disruptions in geology could mean for Chico’s pools.

“I was just dumbfounded,” Kahle said. “I just remember saying, ‘So this company wants to come into town, how do we stop it? What the heck do we do? How do we do this?’”

One hot June day, Kahle started driving around from business to business in Paradise Valley and Livingston asking people to sign onto a petition against the mine. More than 10,000 people filed public comments against the mine.

The sheer audacity of the mining companies to choose Emigrant Peak — the defining mountain of the stretch of road between Livingston and Gardiner — was what Dale Sexton said bothered him the most.

“They don’t call it Paradise Valley Mountain, but they should,” said Sexton, who saw his first mountain lion up Emigrant Gulch and has summited the peak with his daughters.

The mountain became a part of Sexton, just as it is a part of the community. He viewed the mining plans as a money grab, and one that came at the sake of Sexton’s outdoor retail business, Timber Trails in Livingston, but also the businesses of his friends, from fly fishermen to restaurateurs. Businesses rely on Emigrant Peak, the way they rely on Yellowstone National Park and Pine Creek Falls.

“Most people live here because they hike and they ski and they fish and they float the river and they go to Yellowstone,” said Tracy Raich, a founding member of the coalition and real estate agent who sells ranches.

Raich said so many local businesses are fueled by the millions of people who pass through Paradise Valley on their way to and from Yellowstone National Park.

“We have a sustainable economy driven by natural resources, agriculture, livestock, recreation, hospitality, and we want to preserve our way of life, and that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing,” Raich said.

That connection was evident at the first meetings held in June 2015 to build opposition to the mine. Meetings in Emigrant, Gardiner and Livingston were full of people who couldn’t believe a mining company was taking over the most prominent peak in the area. They shared their impassioned stories.

“I’m standing up there at the front of the room, like I need to get out of the way, so they can tell their story,” said Michelle Uberuaga, executive director of the Park County Environmental Council, who helped organize the meetings.

Opposition to the mine ignited everything that makes Livingston unique.

More than 30 Montana writers came together to write a book, “Unearthing Paradise: Montana writers in defense of Greater Yellowstone,” which raised money for the campaign against the gold mine. Elk River Books in Livingston published the book in December 2016.

“Livingston being Livingston, we knew we had plenty of authors and writers at hand,” said Max Hjortsberg, conservation director at the Park County Environmental Council, who edited the book along with Marc Beaudin and Seabring Davis.

Katabatic Brewing brewed a special beer, a Clean Water Pilsner, and tapped the keg in December 2016.

“Clean water is a huge part of making beer,” said LaNette Jones, owner of Katabatic Brewing Company, who moved to Livingston from Missoula because she knew tourists would make a brewery successful. “If you don’t have clean water, you don’t have good beer.”

Local artist Parks Reece painted a picture of a miner on Emigrant Peak. The miner, representing Lucky Minerals, was displacing all of the things that call the mountain, the valley, home — bears, elk, fly fishermen and many, many trout.

Kahle was amazed at their success, going from her driving around in her car to an effort that became an act of Congress.

“I just remember so many times looking at each other and saying, ‘Can you believe this is happening and we’re doing it?’” Kahle said.

‘Who doesn’t want to be the hero of Yellowstone National Park?’

Even as Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte, both Republicans, work to remove federal protections from wilderness study areas across the state, they’ve championed a bill to provide permanent protection from mining on the doorstep of Yellowstone.

Even as Zinke, also a Republican, worked to open public lands to oil, gas and mineral extraction and remove protections from Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, he announced a 20-year withdrawal of mining rights in the area, saying he would make the protections permanent if he could.

So what was different here?

The elephant in the room is that Paradise Valley carries a certain privilege when approaching these conversations. Park County is the home of billionaires and political insiders in a way most places aren’t. Jim Messina, who worked as deputy chief of staff for Barack Obama and managed Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, owns a home in Park County, is friends with Chico Hot Springs Owner Colin Davis and helped start the conversations.

Additionally, most communities don’t have the “viewshed” of snow-capped peaks and open skies that attracts people the way the doorstep to Yellowstone National Park does. If the government doesn’t work for this group of people in this place, then who will it work for?

“It’s Yellowstone National Park, for God’s sake,” Davis said. “Who doesn’t want to be the hero of Yellowstone National Park?”

Gianforte said Paradise Valley’s value to the economy is in the tourism industry.

“Montana has a rich, proud mining history, and one that can responsibly continue,” Gianforte said. “Some places, though, just don’t make sense for a mine.”

Throughout the effort, Daines said “some places are too special to mine” countless times. He told The Enterprise that Chico Hot Springs and Paradise Valley is special to him, from going to his Bozeman High School homecoming dinner at Chico to fly-fishing.

“That’s just part of the state I know very well from personal experience,” Daines said. “I’ve spent a lot of time with a fly rod on the Yellowstone. It’s one of my favorite rivers.”

When first announcing the idea of a Congressional bill guaranteeing permanent protection, Sen. Tester didn’t even run the idea past his staff. Instead, the idea came to him in a moment of inspiration. Speaking at Chico Hot Springs in November 2016 when Jewell was announcing a temporary administrative withdrawal, Tester became inundated with love of place, he realized — why are we talking about two-year withdrawals when this place needs permanent protection?

“I was sitting there listening to (Sally Jewell) talk about a temporary withdrawal and how this is the most magnificent place on earth, certainly in the Lower 48,” Tester said. “And I just thought, ‘It’s just the right thing to do.’”

Another advantage the coalition had is that Montana is a small state that can demand the attention of its Congressional delegation in a way many places can’t, and it’s a place with an instilled conservation ethic.

Coalition members ran into politicians at the airport. Some have personal relationships with the Congressional delegation. But even with those advantages, the coalition still had to work to get the attention of politicians.

“One of my goals in this whole campaign was to strengthen relationships and get to know these people,” Wells said of Daines, Gianforte and Zinke. “I would travel the state and go to fundraisers and campaign rallies every chance I got, to shake their hand, which is a reminder to them, a reminder not to forget our cause.”

Davis drove to Billings because he heard Gov. Bullock, who he had never met, was going to be throwing out the first pitch at a baseball game. He waited until Bullock was in the line for a hot dog, and he cornered him about the mine issue. They’ve been in constant communication ever since. Raich cornered Jen Madgic, a staffer for Tester, at an event at Katabatic, demanding answers on what Tester would do to help stop the mine.

And they listened.

When then-Rep. Ryan Zinke was driving south on U.S. Highway 89 past Emigrant Peak to the National Park Centennial Celebration at Yellowstone National Park, he called Wells and told him he was thinking about him. Tester, Daines and Gianforte all called in to a watch party at Davis’ house when the Senate passed the Gateway Protection Act.

Preserved but not pristine

The name of the mountain implies its history.

Emigrant Peak — “People who permanently left their own country to settle in another” Peak. Named after gold miners who came west in search of placer gold, who took the land from the Crow people. The Native people resisted, driving miners out of Yellowstone City, a collection of a few dozen log cabins at the base of Emigrant Gulch. But the miners came back, with more guns and established gold mine after gold mine up the gulch.

“We certainly aren’t the first people to unite to protect these sacred lands and the wild things that inhabit them, and we won’t be the last,” said Uberuaga, of the Park County Environmental Council.

The mountain has shown its own resilience. The land has maintained much of its intractability, reclaiming itself from the century of mining up its gulch, but still marked by scars of clumsy attempts to plunder the land. So today, the mountain is home to grizzly bears and wolverines. The water is clean. It isn’t like the places back east where Wells doesn’t go and hasn’t been. It’s about as pristine as a place that isn’t virgin can be.

Today’s emigrants, many of whom make up the coalition, come to Paradise Valley because of its views, clean air and clean water. To them, the value of the land is that it is unspoiled, hence the coalition’s tagline “Yellowstone is more valuable than gold.”

The Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition has worked to preserve that. And now 30,000 acres are safe, at least from the threat of gold mining. But other forces are coming. Climate change, invasive species and a growing population present an imminent threat.

Jeff Reed, owner of Reedfly Farms south of Emigrant, said his family established one of the first bed and breakfasts in Paradise Valley. Growing up in the valley, Reed hunted and fished before moving away for 30 years. He moved back and wanted to protect his home, getting involved in the coalition. Reed hopes to continue the momentum the coalition started.

“I feel a responsibility toward the land. Like many of us, I have a sense that tourism and recreation is loving this place to death,” Reed said. “We have a case where this land is our livelihood. We have a responsibility to protect it.”