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Paradise Valley

The Yellowstone River winds through Paradise Valley in this aerial view.

The U.S. Senate is resurrecting a popular package of public land and conservation measures, including an attempt to shield Yellowstone Park’s outskirts from mining development.

The bill, shot down by two lawmakers in the final Senate hours of 2018, includes the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, which bans mining on government land north of the park. It also permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Both are politically charged issues in Montana’s federal campaigns.

Both Montana Sens. Jon Tester, a Democrat, and Steve Daines, a Republican, pushed unsuccessfully for the bill’s passage before lawmakers left for Christmas break.

“This would be one of the biggest accomplishments for conservation and protection of our public lands in Montana and across our country in decades,” said Daines in a press release.

Several conservation groups last month faulted Daines for LWCF not passing by year’s end, though in the Senate it was Republican Sens. Mike Lee, of Utah, and Rand Paul, of Kentucky, who blocked a lands bill vote that supporters insisted would have easily passed.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, assured the bill’s mostly Western state supporters that the public lands package would be one of the first things taken up by the Senate in 2019. Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski and Democrat Maria Cantwell of Washington got the revised bill on the Senate calendar Wednesday.

Staff members for both Daines and Tester said the bill could pass out of the Senate within the next few weeks.

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“This lands package does right by Montana’s outdoor economy because it permanently protects the front porch of Yellowstone, and it reauthorizes the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund,” Tester said in email.

Taking no chances, Tester and Daines introduced a separate bill to advance the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, should the lands package fail again. That bill is not on the same fast track as the public lands package.

The long list of conservation projects in the public lands package issued this week includes everything from climate change studies in Washington state to a community water project in Colorado.

The Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, which had strong bipartisan support from Montana lawmakers, protects 30,000 acres in the Custer Gallatin National Forest in the Paradise Valley just north of Yellowstone National Park. The area, which has a history of gold mining, was drawing new mine interest. The Yellowstone Gateway proposal made federal mineral rights off limits for leasing and prevented existing mines from expanding onto federal property.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund uses federal offshore drilling royalties to pay for conservation easements, public parks and land purchases. Congress has frequently allowed LWCF funding to expire by the end of federal fiscal years. The public lands package would make LWCF funding permanent. In Montana, the bill pays for at least 160 public fishing sites, wildlife conservation areas and public swimming pools.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.