Grassroots grit beat 'the mine from Hell'

  • In Yellowstone, Pres. Clinton sports a park ranger hat

    Steve Fischbach

The campaign to stop the New World Gold Mine on Yellowstone National Park's northern boundary could rank with the great environmental victories of the 20th century. It's not so much what happened as how it happened. Mine opponents started with a textbook grassroots plan to stop the $600 million gold mine. They ended with a win-win solution that protects both the Yellowstone ecosystem and the miners' property rights.

The campaign succeeded because of the tight focus of the local Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Beartooth Alliance on what they wanted: no mine, even though initially that seemed an impossible goal. Other factors leading to success were a court decision, the fearless leadership of Yellowstone Superintendent Mike Finley and, finally, the active involvement of President Bill Clinton.

Just as important was the fact that the grass roots led the fight. If national environmental groups had taken the lead, as they did in the Northwest's ancient forest campaign, my guess is that the mine fight would still be tangled in their larger agenda of reforming the 1872 Mining Law.

As it worked out, however, the Aug. 12 agreement among Clinton, Crown Butte and the environmental groups keeps both the park and the 1872 Mining Law whole. The company gets $65 million worth of federal land in return for the mine site and the minerals beneath Henderson Mountain north of Yellowstone and west of Cooke City, Mont.

Crown Butte also agreed to place $22.5 million in escrow to clean up heavy-metal pollution from past mining. This avoids a Superfund listing, and limits the firm's liability. Assuming the firm can physically clean up the mine, the major remaining problem is: Which federal properties will the federal government hand over to Crown Butte?

But these problems are dwarfed by what has been accomplished.

"In the beginning it was a radical notion to talk about stopping the mine," said Louisa Willcox, the former Greater Yellowstone Coalition program director who joined with people from tiny Cooke City to start the fight.

The first hurdle was to gather enough courage to try to defeat the mine - not just mitigate it, Willcox said. "If we would have decided to support mitigation instead of opposing it then, we'd have a mine here today."

The Beartooth Alliance was formed in those first few 1989 meetings in Cooke City and it quickly built a solid local base that included a majority of the 100 permanent residents of the Yellowstone gateway community. Early members were Richard Parks, a Gardiner, Mont., outfitter and Northern Plains Resource Council president, outfitter Wade King, and store owners Susan and Jim Glidden and Jim and Heidi Barrett.

With Willcox pushing, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition made the mine its major issue. By 1992, the twin appeals of protecting Yellowstone National Park and changing the Mining Law helped make the New World Mine a poster child for mining reform.

Nevertheless, Noranda, the parent company of Crown Butte, pressed ahead, with the U.S. Forest Service taking the lead in preparing an environmental impact statement.

In 1993, with the EIS process under way, Willcox and Ed Lewis went to the company's headquarters in Toronto in search of a deal. When Noranda said no, the environmentalists went back to work.

Although the leadership stayed local, the national groups pitched in. American Rivers, based in Washington, D.C., designated the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River, the wild and scenic river into which the New World Mine - -the mine from Hell' - would drain, the most endangered river in the nation. Also in Washington, D.C., the Mineral Policy Center continued to beat the drum for reform of the 1872 Mining Law.

Then, in what was to turn out to be a crucial appointment, Mike Finley was made superintendent of Yellowstone National Park in early 1995. Even before Finley arrived, the Interior Department had a high-level interagency technical team closely examining everything the Forest Service was doing on the EIS.

Based in part on the work of that team, in spring 1996 Finley told a wildly enthusiastic meeting of GYC members that the Forest Service's environmental review was fatally flawed. He vowed to use all his powers and staff to keep the mine from opening.

"You deserve the truth," Finley said. "You deserve factual analysis and you're not going to get it."

This was a remarkable statement from a federal bureaucrat. Such assessments usually come from people only after they have stepped down or been fired. Among other things, it created a contest between the Forest Service and the Park Service.

In a way, President Clinton had committed himself even before Finley. Back in June 1995, Clinton held a town hall meeting in Billings, Mont., where Susan Glidden of the Cooke City Store and the Beartooth Alliance asked Clinton about the mine. He answered that he would hold the mine to a high standard but wanted to wait for the EIS. He also expressed support for mining in general. Overall, his statements were neutral, but the mine was on his radar screen.

When he returned to the Yellowstone area for his vacation in August 1995, he flew over the mine site and then met with conservationists for two hours in the horse barns at Lamar Ranger Station. At the meeting, he announced a two-year moratorium on mining at the site - the strongest action within his power - and soon after, encouraged his staff to seek a solution. Clinton was no longer neutral.

In October 1995, the mine's opponents got a major break. A federal district court ruled that Crown Butte was responsible under the Clean Water Act for acid water draining out of old mines and waste piles. The suit, brought by the Beartooth Alliance, made Crown Butte and perhaps its parent company, Noranda, liable for acid drainage into the Clarks Fork. Crown Butte now faced Superfund listing and civil penalties that could range as high as $135 million.

Conservationists had a stick.

"There's no way they were going to talk before we won the lawsuit," said Doug Honnold, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund attorney who argued the suit.

In December, Mike Clark, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and several of GYC's board members went to Toronto to again talk to company officials about a deal.

Clark, who had long experience in environmental activism in the South and in Washington, D.C., where he ran Friends of the Earth before coming to the coalition in 1994, was polite but blunt: "We've got you blocked," he told them. "If you want another option, we'll help you get out cleanly."

Clark left Toronto not knowing which way the company would jump. But he was no sooner back in Bozeman than Ian Bayer, chairman of Crown Butte, called to say the company was willing to talk. Clark then went to Washington, D.C., bringing Bayer together with Ray Clark, associate director of the federal Council for Environmental Quality. Negotiations began early this year with the two Clarks (no relation), Honnold and company officials participating.

Both Ray Clark and Bayer say Mike Clark's quiet, businesslike approach was the key to success. "Without Mike's strong leadership, this agreement would not have been reached," Bayer said at the signing ceremonies, which came during Clinton's second vacation as president at Jackson.

Clinton, of course, had not endeared himself to environmentalists during most of his stormy four years. The Forest Plan that came out of his 1993 Forest Conference in Portland didn't go far enough for most environmentalists. And his signing of the salvage logging bill in 1995 angered them even more.

But administrative decisions limiting salvage logging to dead trees, fighting against oil drilling on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and now his action at Yellowstone, have restored some of his green credentials.

Other presidents certainly had more important influences on conservation policy. Franklin Roosevelt's administration transformed and expanded many of Teddy Roosevelt's conservation initiatives. Under Lyndon Johnson, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Wild and Scenic River Act and the Wilderness Act were passed. Perhaps no president will exceed the achievements of Richard Nixon, who signed the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and established the Environmental Protection Agency. Jimmy Carter got the Alaska Lands Bill passed, and under George Bush the Two Forks Dam in Colorado was killed and underground nuclear testing stopped.

However, in all those cases, it was strong Cabinet members or other administration officials who led the way. By comparison, Clinton's involvement in the Yellowstone mine issue was personal, direct and decisive. Clinton will be able to claim in the coming campaign that he spent his summer vacation "Saving Yellowstone National Park."

He could also say, with equal accuracy, that he may have "saved the 1872 Mining Law." The battle against that law is weakened because its proponents can no longer use the threat to Yellowstone to get attention. Still, Phil Hocker, executive director of the Mineral Policy Center, said that the nation paid a high price - $65 million - to ransom Yellowstone National Park.

Putting fairness aside, the $65 million looks like a bargain compared to the costs of cleaning up after the mining industry. The ill-fated Summitville mine in southern Colorado will cost more than $123 million before its site is reclaimed. The Berkeley Pit in Butte, Mont., threatens much of the Northwest, and could cost even more.

It is at least possible that the win-win solution of the New World Mine controversy may lead to an entirely new approach to mining reform and environmental protection throughout the country.

If that happens, Clinton has secured his place in conservation history, and local environmentalists will be empowered as never before.

Rocky Barker writes from Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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