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Emigrant Peak

Just below Emigrant Peak in Paradise Valley, a Canadian mining company is exploring for gold. On Thursday, a U.S. House subcommitte held a hearing on a bill introduced by Rep. Gianforte, R-Mont., to protect Paradise Valley from mining on public lands.

Montanans who have advocated for protection of the Paradise Valley’s public lands from mining, as well as protecting a portion of East Rosebud Creek, got an early Christmas present from Rep. Greg Gianforte.

On Thursday, Gianforte, R-Mont., introduced in the U.S. House a bill (HR 4644) to protect the Paradise Valley from mining on public lands. The measure is identical to the one Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., introduced to the Senate in April. Both bills would withdraw 30,000 acres of federal land in the area from mineral exploration.

“The fact is not every place is the right place for a mine, and we must protect our public lands and Yellowstone National Park," Gianforte said in a press release. "The consensus of the community has been clear, which is why I introduced today’s legislation."

Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding wildlands are an economic engine for the region, pumping an estimated $196 million into Park County in 2014. More than 4 million people have visited Yellowstone each of the past two years, helping boost Montana’s $6 billion recreation and tourism industry.  

“It’s really exciting,” said Colin Davis, owner of Chico Hot Springs Resort and Spa. “All along we’ve been lobbying for bipartisan support.”

The road past Chico would be the main route to Emigrant Gulch where gold mining has been proposed by a Canadian mining firm, Lucky Minerals. In July the Montana Department of Environmental Quality approved Lucky Minerals’ exploratory drilling on private land in the historic mining area.

“Anybody drilling deep holes in this aquifer is a concern,” Davis said. “But I still have to appreciate and be thankful for this victory. We’ve been pushing for this for a long time.”

“We still have a long way to go, but it’s an important step,” said Michelle Uberuaga, of the Park County Environmental Council in Livingston. “This is the permanent solution to protect those public lands, which is critical. We still have a lot of work to do to protect those private lands.”

In September, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against Montana DEQ and Lucky Minerals on behalf of the Park County Environmental Council and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition to try and halt the mining company’s drilling on private land.

In a press release, Lucky Minerals called the lawsuit a “frivolous attempt to infringe on private property rights and circumvent historic mining laws.”

A proposal to reopen an old gold mine on Crevice Mountain, just north of Yellowstone National Park, has not advanced since more details were requested by DEQ last fall.

That leaves Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., as the only member of the state's delegation who hasn't yet introduced legislation protecting the Paradise Valley.

"Sen. Daines supports the local community’s call for a permanent withdrawal," said a Daines spokesperson on Thursday.

In April, Daines had said that any protection would have to be balanced with respect for “property rights, and that's what's missing if we want to see this bill signed into law."

“We’re just hoping and praying he’ll get behind this like Tester and Gianforte,” Davis said. “But it has to be a clean bill, dealing with this particular issue. We would love his support, but not if it’s attached to another piece of legislation.”

Last week, Daines introduced legislation to remove five Montana wilderness study areas from consideration, which could free them up to motorized use. In discussing the bill with reporters, Daines told the Missoulian that his bill could be necessary to win bipartisan support for the Paradise Valley protection bill.

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East Rosebud

On Thursday Gianforte also introduced the East Rosebud Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (HR 4645) to conserve two sections of East Rosebud Creek, which flows from the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area and is a tributary to the Yellowstone River. Tester submitted similar legislation in the Senate in March, which was co-sponsored by Daines.

“We support these two common-sense bills that when passed will keep mines away from Yellowstone’s gateway, and keep East Rosebud Creek both scenic and wild,” said Caroline Byrd, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, in a press release. “We thank Congressman Gianforte for introducing both of these bills, which have near-unanimous support in Montana. He has listened to Montanans who’ve asked him to introduce these clean companion bills in the House, to mirror the popular bills that have already been introduced in the Senate.”

Chances are good that 20 miles of the East Rosebud could be protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act next year, said Mike Fiebig, of American Rivers, in Bozeman. Pursuit of protection for the creek goes back to 2014 when a similar act was introduced.

“These days we look at a Wild and Scenic Rivers Act designation as a 10-year project,” Fiebig said.

But he added that the legislation now looks ripe for attachment to a bill, even though the U.S. House and Senate have been deeply divided by partisan issues.

“We’re really happy that Rep. Gianforte, like his predecessor (Ryan Zinke), decided to support this bill,” Fiebig said. “We think we’ve got a pretty good chance of getting this moved through Congress.”

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.