US Senate advances Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act

By: 
Johnathan Hettinger
Tuesday, February 12, 2019

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, right, meets with area residents during the Last Best Outdoors Fest Aug. 31 in Livingston.

The U.S. Senate advanced the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act Tuesday afternoon by a vote of 92-8.

The act, which would permanently ban mining on 30,000 acres of the Custer Gallatin National Forest, was a part of a public lands package called the Natural Resources Management Act. The act also included permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Republican Sen. Steve Daines, who both sponsored the bill, voted “yes” on the package. Tester originally introduced the act in April 2017. Tester said he was thrilled with the margin.

“Nothing passes 92-8 in the United States Senate,” Tester said. “Nothing.”

Daines said that the margin showed the value all Americans place on public lands. 

“It took public lands to bring a divided government together,” Daines said. “It’s a testimony to who we are as Americans.”

The bill will now be considered in the coming days by the U.S. House of Representatives, where it is expected to pass and be forwarded to the desk of President Donald Trump.

“We have been assured the House will pick it up and pass it as is,” Tester said. He also said he does not think Trump will veto the bill.

Rep. Greg Gianforte, who introduced the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act in the House of Representatives, immediately released a statement praising the Senate’s move.

“I appreciate the Senate moving forward with a public lands package that’s so important to Montana. The permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act will help preserve and expand public access to our public lands,” Gianforte said. “I urge House leaders to keep the momentum going and quickly bring up this public lands package for a vote.”

The act was trumpeted by the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, a group of more than 400 businesses opposed to two mines north of Yellowstone National Park. Members of the coalition made multiple trips to Washington, D.C., to lobby for the bill and testify at Congressional hearings.

Colin Davis, owner of Chico Hot Springs, was among those who went to Congress.

“Today is one of the greatest days of my life,” Davis said. “It’s amazing. It restores my faith in the system.”

Davis said it means the world for his children and for the rest of the people in the valley, and he’s thankful the delegation — led by Tester — listened to the coalition.

On a press call, Tester said he remembered the first meeting with local business owners in Livingston, and Davis’ leadership helped usher through the bill.

“Your guy’s never-give-up attitude made the difference. I could see it in your eyes. I could hear it in your voice.” Tester told Davis on a press call. “Tell all the members of the coalition thank you for doing what is right.”

Daines in a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources press conference said special places like Chico Hot Springs need to be preserved.

“Its a place special to my family since I was in grade school,” Daines said.

Bryan Wells, another member of the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition who went to D.C. to lobby, said he was working on his house up Emigrant Gulch on Tuesday afternoon and was unable to get his internet stream to work, but knew when it passed. 

“I got dozens of texts,” Wells said. “I feel great. We’re gonna get this thing done.”

In October, then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced a 20-year administrative withdrawal of mining rights in the area, which includes two proposed gold mines: Lucky Minerals at Emigrant Gulch and Crevice Mountain Mining Company near Jardine, on the northern border of Yellowstone National Park. 

In December, the public lands package failed at the 11th hour, after Republican Senators Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky halted the bill. Senate leadership said it would be one of the first bills considered in the new Congress. But a 35-day government shutdown — the longest in history — delayed the consideration of the package. 

“We are popping open the champagne as we speak,” said Caroline Byrd, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. 

Michelle Uberuaga, executive director of the Park County Environmental Council, said she was inspired by the community’s ability to come together to stop the mines.

“It’s absolutely incredible to see the power of a united community,” Uberuaga said. “We were able to set aside personal politics, stand shoulder-to-shoulder and work hard to safeguard the headwaters of the Yellowstone River, our public lands, our wildlife, people and jobs that depend on clean water and open lands in our community. It’s just incredible.”