A bill to permanently halt mining on federal land surrounding Montana’s Paradise Valley will be introduced to the U.S. Senate this session, Sen. Jon Tester announced Tuesday.

The Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act permanently withdraws federal mineral rights on 30,000 acres of public land in the Custer Gallatin National Forest adjacent to the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and Yellowstone National Park, and it eliminates the ability for proposed mines to expand on to unclaimed public land.

A two-year prohibition on mining on public lands was enacted in November by former Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell. Her decision came after locals and area businesses lobbied against the two gold mining companies that have been seeking state mining permits.

Tester said with more people visiting national parks each year, and the reliance of area businesses on the health of the environment to generate income, the legislation is needed to ensure protection for current and future generations.

The Senator said he had forwarded the information about his proposal to U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, who has never taken a stance on the mining issue. 

“If we can talk about this from an economic standpoint I think he’ll come along,” Tester said.

To that end, Tester stressed Yellowstone National Park visitors spent an average of $196 million in Park County in 2014 that helped create and sustain nearly 3,000 jobs. Statewide the outdoor economy supports 64,000 jobs and generates nearly $6 billion for the economy, he said.

"I grew up fly fishing the Yellowstone and my kids shot their first elk in Paradise Valley," Daines said in an email after being contacted for comment. "We need to protect this Montana treasure while also respecting property rights, and that's what's missing if we want to see this bill signed into law."

The Montana Department of Environment Quality recommended in December that Lucky Minerals be given an exploration license to obtain core samples from up to 46 drill holes on private land in the Absaroka Mountains in Park County, about 12 miles southeast of Emigrant. The total project disturbance area would be just less than 5 acres. The company wants to gauge the area's copper, gold, silver and molybdenum deposits.

A second company, Crevice Mining Group, is seeking permission to explore for gold on 14 acres of private property near Jardine, just north of Yellowstone Park. The Crevice project has been on hold since the DEQ issued a letter of deficiency last summer asking for more information on the request to drill.

The fact that the mining companies can still mine private lands does not distract from the legislation, Tester said. Big mining projects would need a lot of land to expand since the private parcels are relatively small and surrounded by federal lands. The legislation will take away the incentive to mine in the region, he added, in effect stopping large mining close to the Paradise Valley.

The proposed legislation drew a flurry of praise from conservation groups and local business owners who had lobbied for federal protection. Colin Davis, owner of Chico Hot Springs Resort — which would have mining traffic through its parking lot if Lucky Minerals moves ahead — thanked Tester for taking action.

“We are so thankful for this move,” Davis said, adding that his 170 employees and their families were excited about the announcement.

“We are advocates of property rights,” said Tracy Raich, owner of Raich Montana Properties in Livingston. “We are not anti-mining. We understand that there are places to mine, but the doorstep of Yellowstone National Park isn’t one of them. The spectacular public lands, agricultural heritage, clean rivers and streams surrounding this area give the region a competitive advantage. The lifeblood of our economy is tied to these high-quality natural resources.”

When asked what chance the legislation might have with the Trump administration, Tester said he thought the hurdle would be getting Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke’s approval and possibly the newly appointed Secretary of Agriculture.

“If they support it I think Trump will sign it,” Tester said.

As a Montana Congressman, Zinke endorsed a mining ban. The two candidates for his seat, Republican Greg Gianforte and Democrat Rob Quist, have both indicated they oppose mining in the region, as well. Whichever candidate is elected, Tester said he will approach him to carry companion legislation in the U.S. House.



Outdoors editor for the Billings Gazette.