Gold Rush: Mining seeks to tighten its grip on the 'last, best place'

  • Bimetallic mill in Philipsburg, Mont., ca. 1893

    Ross Toole Archives/U.M., Missoula

Note: this front-page essay introduces this issue's feature story.

Pity Montana. Everyone wants a piece of it. Most desire its trout streams, the solace of its open spaces, its stunning mountains. Mining companies want the metals buried beneath this incomparable landscape.

Hardrock mining is already big business in Montana. But it could soon get bigger. A giant, open-pit gold mine may operate next to a river, a silver mine may tunnel under a wilderness area, and the state's already largest mine may triple its size. The Treasure State is struggling with the questions posed by these new or expanding mines, trying to imagine its future both with and without them.

The debate is intense. Industry warns against dependence on the New West's baggage of low-paying service jobs. As an alternative, industry points to the well-paying workingman's jobs it provides and emphasizes the bonds this creates to other Montanans who see themselves as doing "real" work, whether they are ranchers or loggers or auto mechanics.

Environmentalists would like Montanans to remember mining's destructive and lasting footprint on the land and to have faith in the state's evolving economy. They also argue that hardrock mining is unstable, as the recent dive in the price of gold shows.

Almost every resident of this huge, economically weak, rapidly changing state is being drawn into the debate. New political coalitions are forming as Montanans try to decide the immediate question: Should three mining companies be allowed to open huge pits or to tear down mountains in order to take publicly owned ore?

This special issue on mining tells the story of Montana's attempt to define itself. It will be followed on Jan. 19, 1998, with a broader look at mining with stories on reclamation, a gold mine in California that has improved the land around it, and the possibility that the mining industry can change its culture, and thereby its ways.