Late push made for anti-mining legislation

Johnathan Hettinger —
Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Enterprise photo by Johnathan Hettinger

A drift boat goes down the Yellowstone River on July 9. The Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, designed to stop mining efforts north of Yellowstone Park, has been touted as a way to help protect the river and Paradise Valley.

With the end of Congress’ lame-duck session in sight, Montana’s entire Congressional delegation says it is a priority to get the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act passed in the next couple weeks.

With the passing of former President George H. W. Bush, most of Congress’ activities have slowed down this week. The government had a deadline of Friday to pass a spending bill to continue to fund the government, but an agreement has been made to push back that deadline to Dec. 21.

That also pushes back the timeline for the YGPA, which would permanently ban mining on 30,000 acres of Custer Gallatin National Forest, where there are two proposed gold mines: Lucky Minerals at Emigrant Gulch and Crevice Mountain Mining Company near Jardine, on the northern border of Yellowstone National Park.

“We’re feeling really positive,” said Colin Davis, owner of Chico Hot Springs and founding member of the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, which has pushed for the act. “There are a number of moving pieces of legislation that look really plausible for us to be a part of.”

Right now, the most likely solution is that the bill will be included as a provision of an omnibus spending bill that would fully fund the federal government. There has also been discussion of including the bill as a part of a public lands package, which would include funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, an option that Republican Sen. Steve Daines is still pushing for, said his Press Secretary Julia Doyle.

“Passing the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act is a major priority for Senator Daines, and he was instrumental in ensuring the bill moved through the legislative process,” Doyle said. “The Senator is fighting to ensure the legislation is included in a year-end legislative lands package to be signed into law.”

Davis said both Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte and Democratic Sen. Jon Tester have made the act their No. 1 legislative priority heading into the end of the session.

“Getting the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act signed into law has been one of my top priorities for the last year, and I am optimistic we can get there by the end of the year,” Gianforte said through a spokesman. “I’ll continue pushing to get this critical measure signed into law by whatever means available, whether as a standalone bill or as part of a larger, must-pass piece of legislation.”

If the bill does not pass this session, it would have to be re-introduced and go back through committees in each chamber of Congress.

“Local businesses, families, hikers, anglers, and outdoor enthusiasts are demanding a vote on the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act before the end of the year,” said Tester through a spokesman. “It is time to stop playing politics with our public lands and pass this bipartisan bill to permanently protect the headwaters of the Yellowstone River.”

Bryan Wells, a member of the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, said the entire delegation is fighting for the bill to pass.

“I’m very optimistic, but I know hundreds of things could go wrong,” Wells said. “I’m extremely happy for where it’s at. It’s moved faster than the speed of lightning, in comparison to other issues like this.”

Davis said it’s a priority to get this done by the end of the year, but if the act doesn’t pass, the fight will continue.

“We’re not looking at this as the end of the race. I mean, we feel like can see the finish line and we’re trying harder than we have right now. It’s very plausible it could happen by the end of the year,” Davis said. “We’re hoping this is going to happen, but if it doesn’t, we’re far from done. We’re in it until we win it. We’re in it forever.”

In October, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced a 20-year administrative withdrawal of mining rights in the area, offering somewhat of a reprieve to local efforts. The withdrawal would make both mines less feasible because the companies, which currently have private leases to mine, would not be able to expand onto surrounding public land, and the bill would provide permanent protection.

Michelle Uberuaga, executive director of the Park County Environmental Council, said that if the bill doesn’t pass this session, the process could be a little easier next session because the bill has already had hearings and would still have the support of Montana’s entire Congressional delegation.

That streamlining could be important in order to get the bill passed before the summer, which is the beginning of drilling season, Uberuaga said.

Lucky Minerals has a permit to do exploration work on its private leases from July 15 to October 15 of next year, despite a ruling by District Court Judge Brenda Gilbert that the Department of Environmental Quality violated the law in approving the project. The permit is still valid because of a 2011 amendment to the Montana Environmental Policy Act that disallowed a court from stopping work on a project if it orders a state agency to do more analysis. Currently, a lawsuit filed by PCEC and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition has filed a constitutional challenge to that amendment.

If the bill doesn’t pass, Uberuaga said that while that lawsuit continues, community efforts will be doubled down on the legislation.

“The goal would be pushing to get it done before the summer,” Uberuaga said. “It’s drilling season that we get anxious about.”