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Know the West

A mine falls, and a tribe may get the shaft


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "A breath of fresh air."

It was a glorious sight to many in the environmental movement: President Bill Clinton traveled to Yellowstone National Park in August 1996, donned a ranger hat, and announced a deal that would stave off a gold mine in the mountains just outside the park.

Environmental groups had brokered the deal, led by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, based in Bozeman, Mont. They wanted to save the park and neighboring watersheds from 11 million tons of highly acidic waste rock at the planned New World Mine.

But after the photo op, things got ugly. In return for surrendering the mine, Crown Butte Mines Inc. (a Montana subsidiary of the Canadian giant, Noranda) was promised money or federal land. Montana Gov. Marc Racicot and his successor, Judy Martz, along with several Montana congressmen, also sought compensation for the loss of mining jobs and income, which they said was a blow to the state’s economy.

It took years for the environmental groups, company officials and politicians to wrestle out the specifics; along the way, acts of Congress, a Clinton veto, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling and bitter settlements of several lawsuits piled up like mine tailings. The feds eventually gave the gold-mining company about $42.5 million. The Montana state government, which tends to like mining, eventually got 8,350 acres of subsurface coal rights — an estimated 533 million tons of coal.

But the coal rests along Otter Creek in southeastern Montana, where many ranchers oppose mining — and within a few miles of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. “The environmentalists (who signed off on the Otter Creek deal) never contacted us,” says Gail Small, head of a tribal activist group, Native Action, which opposes mining. “There could have been concessions to protect our air and water. It’s a classic case of environmental racism.”

Mike Clark, who was director of Greater Yellowstone Coalition when the larger deal was brokered, says, “If we had thought what we were doing would impact (the Northern Cheyenne), we would have involved them. But we never thought the Otter Creek tract deal would come about. We were wrong.”

The tribe got a bit of leverage with its own last-minute lawsuit against the deal in February 2002. It then negotiated a settlement, in which any company that mines the coal will have to pay the Northern Cheyenne to do environmental monitoring, and also give tribal members some of the mining jobs.

But another complication has reared up:

The Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council, which gained five new members in the November election, has decided to put the Otter Creek settlement to a tribal-wide vote. A date for the referendum has not yet been set. Council members have expressed several concerns about the issue, including worries about the impacts of mining and the presence of outsiders on the reservation. Some want better guarantees for jobs and job-training for tribal members.