Emigrant Gulch

Emigrant Gulch is shown north of Yellowstone National Park.

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The U.S. Forest Service wants to ban new mining claims on about 30,000 acres of public land in the mountains north of Yellowstone National Park for 20 years, a move they say will hamper mine development and protect the environment.

The ban would withdraw mineral rights from 30,370 acres in the mountains east of the Paradise Valley. The land split between two areas where mining companies want to drill for gold — one near Emigrant Gulch, which is south of Chico Hot Springs, the other near Jardine, just a few miles from the border of Yellowstone National Park.

Forest officials released a draft environmental assessment of the proposed withdrawal Thursday that considered potential environmental and economic impacts from future mine development. A 20-year ban wouldn’t affect existing mining claims but would likely limit future mining development.

The study argues that it’s necessary to “preserve the scenic integrity, important wildlife corridors and high quality recreation values contained in these lands.”

It would be an extension of a two-year moratorium the Obama administration issued in 2016, which was meant to give time for analysis of a potential extension. A mineral withdrawal can only become permanent through legislation.

The Forest Service’s environmental assessment will now be reviewed by the Department of the Interior, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has the final say on whether the ban will be extended and for how long.

Zinke, who has opposed mining near the Paradise Valley, said in an emailed statement that he looks forward to “hearing from the community and seeing how we can work together to protect this area.”

Supporters of the withdrawal cheered the release of the assessment on Thursday. Dale Sexton, a member of the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, said in an emailed statement that the group would push for a 20-year extension.

“Montana businesses will pursue the maximum protections allowed by this EA to divert foreign mining companies from developing industrial mines on the doorstep to Yellowstone National Park,” Sexton said.

Montana Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines said in an emailed statement that he supports the 20-year ban and that he’s glad the Forest Service “is following the local community’s wishes to protect this area that is critical to Montana’s outdoor economy.”

Shaun Dykes, vice president of Lucky Minerals, said the proposed withdrawal wasn’t a surprise, and that it won’t prevent his company’s plans to drill for gold on private land in Emigrant Gulch this summer. He said the decision could make investors nervous, however, and may make development tougher in the future.

“I think the worst thing is what they’re doing is preventing the creation of lots of well-paying jobs,” Dykes said.

Locals and environmentalists began raising concerns about mining near the Paradise Valley in 2015, when Lucky Minerals first proposed exploratory drilling. Around the same time, a second company, Crevice Mining Group, proposed drilling near Jardine, just north of Yellowstone.

Opponents of the two companies worry exploration will lead to large-scale mines that could harm the environment and the region’s tourism-based economy. Both companies have said they disagree, and that their operations would be safe and could help the economy.

The mine opponents began calling for a withdrawal of the lands surrounding the two companies a little less than two years ago. They think banning new public land mining claims around land the companies already have will prevent industrial-scale development. They’re also hoping to pass a permanent withdrawal through Congress.

The withdrawal areas in the environmental assessment are nearly evenly split, both near 15,000 acres.

The Forest Service used a “reasonable development scenario” for the two areas to analyze the potential impact of both a withdrawal and future mine development. Withdrawing the claims wouldn’t prevent mining activity — claim owners with a “valid existing right” would be unaffected — so both scenarios presumed some mining would happen.

But the study estimates a withdrawal would reduce mining activity near Emigrant by 45 percent. In the Crevice area, the study estimates activity would be reduced by 25 percent. The study argues that reduced activity would be better for the area’s scenery and wildlife, and that it would reduce the risk of adverse environmental impacts.

It also looked at the potential economic impact of the mines. If both went forward with no claims withdrawn, the study estimates the two mines combined would bring 116 jobs to Park County over the next 20 years.

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Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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