Zinke signs 20-year withdrawal on mining claims in Paradise Valley
Johnathan Hettinger,
Monday, October 8, 2018

Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke signs a 20-year administrative withdrawal on mining claims on 30,000 acres of the Custer-Gallatin National Forest, including Paradise Valley at Sage Lodge near Emigrant, Monday. Behind Zinke, in back, is Timber Trails owner Dale Sexton, and Michelle Uberuaga, both members of the Greater Yellowstone Business Coalition, and in front from left, Clara Lighthiser, 10, Emmett Lighthiser, 7, Palen Sexton, 10, Meryl Sexton, 12, Eva Lighthiser, 12. 

Paradise is preserved — for at least 20 years.

That’s the message Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke sent on Monday morning, when he signed a 20-year administrative withdrawal on mining claims on 30,000 acres of the Custer-Gallatin National Forest.

The announcement, held at Sage Lodge, was the result of a three-year effort by the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, a group of more than 400 local businesses, local activists and concerned citizens to stop two proposed gold mines in Paradise Valley.

The two proposals — Lucky Minerals at Emigrant Gulch and Crevice Mountain Mining Company near Jardine — each claim to have private leases surrounded by national forest, but a withdrawal would limit their ability to expand beyond the private leases. Zinke said he thinks the administrative withdrawal will make the proposed projects less feasible.

“I would say sleep well tonight,” Zinke told the crowd of about 40 people on the wet, cloudy morning when views of Emigrant Peak were hidden by clouds.

The 20-year withdrawal replaces a two-year withdrawal put in place in November 2016 by then-Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.

Zinke said the 20-year commitment was the longest he could do.

“If I could make it permanent, I would,” he said.

Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Greg Gianforte have both sponsored identical versions of the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, a bill that would permanently halt the mining claims in the area. The bill has made it out of committee in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and activists hope that it will be passed into law later this year during the lame-duck session.

Gianforte told The Enterprise he plans to attach it to a larger package of public lands bills, while Tester said he hopes to make it an amendment on another bill.

Members of the coalition thanked Zinke, who was the only politician at the event.

Bryan Wells, a founding member of the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, said he was thankful that Montana’s delegation — from Zinke and Gianforte to Tester and Sen. Steve Daines, who helped get the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee — listened to its constituents.

Wells shared a story of Zinke, then a congressman, calling him while on the drive through Paradise Valley to the National Park Centennial celebration at Yellowstone to tell him he was looking at Emigrant Peak and thinking of Wells.

“I thought, ‘How does he even have my number?’” Wells said.

“Former Navy SEAL,” Zinke joked.

Michelle Uberuaga, speaking on behalf of Chico Hot Springs Owner Colin Davis and Raich Montana Properties LLC owner Tracy Raich, both of whom were out of town for family reasons, said she appreciated the whole community effort.

“This has truly been a ground-up, grassroots effort,” Uberuaga said.

She said the coalition brought together people on all sides of the political spectrum and taught them they all have shared values.

Dale Sexton, owner of Timber Trails and lifelong resident of Livingston, shared three stories about Emigrant Peak — seeing a mountain lion at the age of 10, following grizzly tracks almost to the summit and hiking to the top with his two daughters.

“This is an important part of who I am, it’s foundational to my life,” Sexton said.

Zinke said the community consensus, as well as the economic impacts of the mine and the best available science, made this an easy decision.

“Here there is a consensus by the delegation, the governor and more importantly the valley,” Zinke said. “There’s places to mine and places not to mine.”

Zinke, who opposed the mines prior to becoming secretary, said this has been a long way in the works.

“Some things are more important than politics,” Zinke said. “Today is an example of a promise made is a promise kept.”