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PRAY — The seats were full, and there wasn't much room to stand. About 100 people — locals, environmental groups, political staffers and government officials — stuffed a conference room at Chico Hot Springs here on Monday to hear what they all considered good news.  

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell was here to announce that the Obama administration would temporarily block new mining claims on about 30,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land north of Yellowstone National Park, near where two mining companies have asked the state for permission to look for gold on private land. 

"We've all heard what you've told us, which is Yellowstone is more valuable than gold," Jewell said as the room burst into applause.

Jewell made the announcement with U.S. Undersecretary of Agriculture Robert Bonnie, Montana's Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, Gov. Steve Bullock and Park County Commissioner Steve Caldwell. Joy reverberated through the room. People hugged and cheered, and one man carried a simple sign with a simple message: "Thanks." 

"It's just incredibly exciting," said Michelle Uberuaga, the executive director of the Park County Environmental Council.

The move comes more than a year after two separate companies asked the state of Montana for permission to look for gold on private land in the mountains east of U.S. Highway 89. Lucky Minerals Inc., a Canadian company, has applied for an exploration permit near Emigrant Peak, which sits behind Chico Hot Springs. Crevice Mining Group LLC, based in Spokane, Washington, applied to explore for gold near Jardine, just north of the Yellowstone National Park border. 

Opposition to the two projects sprang up quickly, including environmental groups, locals and business owners. Earlier this year, the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition lobbied for a mineral withdrawal — a request that was fulfilled on Monday. 

The prohibition will only prevent new claims on federal land, so it won't directly impact the proposals the two companies have put forward. Both companies have applied to look for gold on solely private land and both have already staked claims on public land that would not be affected.

During the temporary ban, the Department of the Interior will conduct an environmental analysis to determine whether new claims should be suspended for longer through something called an administrative withdrawal. The public will have the chance to comment on that idea until late February, and the U.S. Forest Service will host a public meeting about the proposal in mid-January.

The longest an administrative withdrawal can last is 20 years. Only congressional legislation can withdraw mineral rights permanently. Tester said at the event that he would introduce a bill during the next Congress to do just that.

Emigrant Gulch Announcement

Sen. Jon Tester spoke Monday after Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that the Obama administration will protect 30,000 acres of land from new mining claims in Paradise Valley on Nov. 21 at Chico Hot Springs Resort.

"Responsible mineral development plays an important role in Montana's economy," Tester said. "But there are simply some places where you should not dig and you should not drill, and the front porch of Yellowstone National Park is one of those places."

Earlier on Monday, Jewell and Bonnie joined forest officials for a tour of Emigrant Gulch, where Lucky Minerals has plans to look for gold. A convoy of SUVs crept up the narrow, rocky road that threads the gulch, stopping at a fork in the road. From there, the group hiked a ways in, passing stands of whitebark pine trees, scree fields and Emigrant Creek — which the Forest Service says is sterile because of mining waste from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

"In this area, we don't believe mining is an appropriate use," said Jewell, standing on the road above the creek.

Whether any mining happens there is still in the hands of the state. In his speech Monday, Gov. Bullock described himself as a "strong supporter" of private property rights and said the companies would get a fair shake from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, which handles mining applications on private land.  

Emigrant Gulch Announcement

Gov. Steve Bullock spoke Monday after Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that the Obama administration will protect 30,000 acres of land from new mining claims in Paradise Valley on Nov. 21 at Chico Hot Springs Resort.

"The state must and will give those companies the fairest application of our state's mining laws," Bullock said. 

DEQ is accepting public comment on its draft environmental assessment of Lucky Minerals' plan to look for gold in the gulch. The document says the operation wouldn't have a significant environmental impact and recommends allowing exploration as long as the company agrees to a few conditions. 

As for Crevice, DEQ found inconsistencies in the company's application and has asked them to resubmit. Michael Werner, the head of the company, said they plan to do so eventually.  

Top officials from both mining companies said they don't expect the ban to significantly affect their operations. Werner said they have already staked the claims they need on federal land and that as long as those remain unaffected, the ban "won't affect us at all."

Shaun Dykes, the vice president of Lucky Minerals, said he was upset the Department of the Interior hadn't consulted with him or the claim owners he is working with before the ban. But, he added, the company has already staked all the federal land claims they want. 

"What they've done for me is prevented the competition from coming in for two years," said Shaun Dykes, the vice president of Lucky Minerals.

Opponents of the two mining proposals were cautious to reiterate that the fight over mining in the Paradise Valley is not over. Caroline Byrd, the executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said they will watch the proposals on private land closely to ensure DEQ's analyses are thorough.

And, she said, permanent withdrawal through Congress is still the final goal.

"We want to kill it. We want to put a stake in the heart of any mine in Emigrant Gulch or on Crevice," Byrd said. 

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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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