« Return to this article

Know the West

Could a treaty block a mine?

  Although international treaties are best known for settling wars, a treaty could affect an underground gold mine proposed just outside Yellowstone National Park. Under a 1972 international treaty known as the World Heritage Convention, ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1973, Yellowstone was deemed a "world heritage site." The 136 nations that approved the treaty agreed that "deterioration or disappearance of any item of the cultural or natural heritage constitutes a harmful impoverishment of the heritage of all the nations of the world." Now, Park Service officials are trying to learn whether the treaty obligates the government to take special steps to stop or restrict the mine project, even though federal mining laws do not. There is also, it turns out, a federal law specifying how the treaty should be carried out in the United States. It says world heritage sites must have "such legal protections as may be necessary to ensure preservation of the property and its environment." Legal scholars say that if the New World Mine is ever approved, the government could be sued for abrogating that responsibility.