A coalition hopes to halt gold mine proposals near Yellowstone

The group of business-owners seeks help from Washington to prevent mining north of the national park.

 

Bryan Wells, a soft-spoken 61-year-old with a receding hairline and a bushy gray beard that reaches to the middle of his chest, is adamant about two things: Keeping large-scale gold mining away from the area north of Yellowstone National Park where he owns a cluster of cabins, and not getting on an airplane. So he took a train 46 hours to Washington, D.C., this week to seek help in fighting two mining companies looking for gold near the national park.

“I never leave home, so I am way, way out of my comfort zone," he says. "But this is really important to me. If these mines were allowed to developed, it would be devastating to the economy of Park County because we depend so much on the pristine beauty of the area and tourism.”

Wells met up with Tracy Raich, an energetic real estate broker whose husband is a mining engineer, and Colin Davis, who owns the century-old Chico Hot Springs Resort. The trio met with senior Obama administration officials and Montana senators, had breakfast with Montana’s whole congressional delegation, and even hosted a reception at the National Geographic Society, which is featuring Yellowstone in its May issue.

Tracy Raich, left, Bryan Wells, center, and Colin Davis, right.
Elizabeth Shogren/High Country News

Wells and the others represent Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, a group of nearly 200 businesses small and large in Park County that is raising a ruckus about two mining companies that have applied to explore for gold north of Yellowstone. The companies intend to start by exploring on private land but any prospective mines would likely affect the surrounding public lands. The coalition asked the Interior Department for a three-year emergency withdrawal of the public minerals, a federal action that would prevent any new mining or exploration, surrounding the private inholdings in Custer Gallatin National Forest. They called on their senators and representatives to press their cause and introduce legislation for a permanent withdrawal.

“There are just some places that are too special to dig or drill, and the front porch of Yellowstone Park is one of those places,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, told High Country News in an email following his meetings with the group. A spokesman for Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, stressed that the senator grew up in Bozeman, spending his weekends in the backcountry in the area but didn’t state his position on the withdrawal.

The groups’ success in landing so many high-level meetings reflects the cachet that Yellowstone, the nation’s first national park, has in Washington. But the mining companies have entrenched power on their side as well. The 1872 Mining Act, which still largely holds sway, gives hardrock miners the right to claim federal land for mining purposes and mine without paying any royalties. It would take action by the Interior secretary, president or Congress to withdraw public minerals from mining, although the state of Montana regulates exploration and mining on the private land, where the companies have requested license to explore.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality currently is doing an environmental analysis of an exploration proposal near Wells’ cabins in Emigrant Gap from Lucky Minerals, a Canadian company. The draft analysis is due out this summer, according to spokeswoman Kristi Ponozzo. As for the other operation, Crevice Mining Group LLC, the department found problems with its exploration proposal and sent a letter in April advising the company that it would have to reapply before it could get a license to explore. Tammy Johnson, executive director of the Montana Mining Association, underscored that these companies are merely exploring for gold at this point, saying it was “premature” to suggest what kind of mines they might contemplate.

“The mine permitting process is pretty rigorous in Montana. Should anyone decide they want to build a mine, there is a substantial process they need to go through to do that,” said Johnson.

Efforts to reach Crevice were unsuccessful, but Shaun Dykes, vice president of Lucky Minerals, told High Country News that "given the site is the location of heavy mining activity in the past and the potential sources of jobs and revenue, should exploration be successful, it makes no sense to withdraw these lands. They sure are not unique and pristine wilderness." His company's plan is to explore on private land and if it is successful in finding gold, would seek permission to explore on public land. But as for the withdrawal, he adds: "We would fight tooth and nail for our rights."

map-of-mining-regions-near-yellowstone-jpg
A map of the proposed withdrawals, in yellow and orange.
Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition

The emissaries for the Yellowstone Gateway Coalition don’t deny their area’s mining history, but they say their region has chosen a new path that’s not consistent with large-scale mining. Wells lives right on Emigrant Creek, where mining trucks for the Lucky Minerals’ project would have to drive on what’s now a one-lane dirt road. His wife’s family came to this area in 1873 to mine gold and her parents had to get up before dawn to get water before the dozens of families surviving the Depression by mining upstream caused the water to turn the color of chocolate milk. The hills, once bare from mining-era timber-cutting, are still scarred from earlier failed efforts at gold extraction.

“But God has repaired the canyon. It’s healed,” Wells says. "You can lay on your belly next to the creek and get a drink. The water is so clean and pure, and we’re fighting to keep it that way.” As the land has grown back up over scars, climbers, skiers, ATV and horseback riders have come to recreate there. Wells now takes his guests hiking on the Forest Service land where Lucky Minerals has staked claims.

Today, Park County’s economy is based on tourism, and many business owners see the requests to explore for gold as a threat to their livelihoods. “It’s a precursor to a disaster,” says Davis, who employs 170 local people at his resort. “It’s going to tear our way of life apart.”

Bryan Wells owns cabins on Emigrant Creek not far from where a Canadian company wants to explore for gold. By Bryan Wells.
Bryan Wells owns cabins on Emigrant Creek not far from where a Canadian company wants to explore for gold.
Bryan Wells

The group released an economic analysis for their county that estimates anglers spend $70 million a year to fish on the Upper Yellowstone, most of that money going to Park County businesses. Hotels and restaurants bring in the most money to the county and owners worry the mining could chase tourists away.

Conservation groups fighting the gold mining projects hope that if the federal minerals were withdrawn, it would not be economically viable to develop just the private inholdings. “Our belief is that mining companies would lose interest in mining on that smaller scale,” says Jenny Harbine, an Earthjustice lawyer.

Jeff Krauss of the Bureau of Land Management said his agency listened to Wells and the others from Park County but has not taken action. Lucky Minerals early this year cancelled a proposal to explore on Forest Service land after learning the agency would require an environmental analysis.

But Lucky Minerals still has more than 100 claims, each covering about 20 acres, on federal lands, which may complicate the coalition's effort to get a withdrawal, according to Robert Grosvenor, a minerals administrator on Custer Gallatin National Forest. Crevice also has claims to minerals on federal land. Before withdrawing minerals, the federal government must prove there are no valid existing claims. Grosvenor says that's not easy. The Forest Service is still trying to prove that some claims are not valid in an area that President Clinton withdrew from mining in 1996.  "We would only withdraw the parts that Lucky didn’t hold claim to," Grosvenor says. That may have the unintended consequence of driving up the value of Lucky's claims. "I don’t see (the withdrawal) being an effective tool at this time," he said.

Still Wells and his traveling companions hope that although they may not be able to stop the exploration and possible mining on private lands, a withdrawal could limit the scale of any eventual mines.

“Every corner of Montana is behind this, from our senators to our coffee shops,” Davis, 60, says.

Raich, 55, says the group isn’t anti-mining, but believes their community, so near Yellowstone, is not the place to do it. “My mining husband agrees,” Raich says. “Right now his company is doing gold mines all over the world. He’s working on one in Montana. But they’re not prospecting near national parks for goodness sake’s. That’s not the respectful, appropriate way to provide resources for the world.”

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC Correspondent.