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.

Though the Obama administration on Monday temporarily blocked new mining claims on about 30,000 acres of land north of Yellowstone National Park, whether the prohibition is to become permanent depends on what happens in Congress.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced a two-year ban on new mining claims on U.S. Forest Service land near where two mining companies have plans to look for gold east of the Paradise Valley. That ban could be extended to last 20 years, but the only way mineral rights can be permanently withdrawn is through congressional action.

At Chico Hot Springs on Monday, Montana’s U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said that he would be introducing legislation to do just that during the next session of Congress.

What that bill will look like and whether it will have the full support of Montana’s congressional delegation isn’t clear just yet. In an email on Tuesday, Tester spokeswoman Marnee Banks said Tester hasn’t worked out all the specifics of the bill yet but would release a draft when they have one. She added that Tester has made the measure a high priority and plans to introduce it in the “first months of 2017.”

Banks also said the senator hasn’t talked to Republican Sen. Steve Daines or Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke about the measure yet, but is “hopeful this can be a bipartisan effort.”

Zinke has expressed opposition to the two mining proposals in the area — which include an Emigrant Gulch proposal from Lucky Minerals Inc. and one on Crevice Mountain near Jardine from Crevice Mining Group LLC.

Zinke spokeswoman Heather Swift said in an email that the congressman wasn’t reachable by phone on Tuesday so she couldn’t say for sure whether he would support Tester’s legislation. But she did say that if the local community supports a permanent ban on new mining claims in the areas, Zinke would too.

Daines has not publicly voiced opposition to the mines. Daines staff said in an email that he would consider legislation that balances environmental sensitivity and community needs with “responsible natural resource development in Montana.”

In an emailed statement, Daines said he “will continue to listen and work with the local community and ensure their voice is heard. We must strive for a balance that protects the private property rights and values of all parties, and also protects our environment.”

The temporary ban and the talk of permanently withdrawing rights is in response to the two companies’ desires to look for gold on private land. Both Crevice and Lucky have applied to the state Department of Environmental Quality for exploratory drilling permits. Neither company is directly impacted by Jewell’s announcement Monday, which doesn’t impact private land or existing staked claims on federal land.

Locals and environmentalists opposed to the projects argue that exploration will lead to large scale mining with the potential to harm the environment and the region’s tourism-based economy. They say the prohibition on new claims will prevent the companies from expanding farther onto public land.

Despite Jewell’s announcement on Monday, the opposition has no plans to rest. Michelle Uberuaga, executive director of the Park County Environmental Council, said they are still focused on following the state permitting processes closely to “ensure the applications that are active on private land are also given the scrutiny they deserve.”

DEQ is accepting public comments on their environmental analysis of Lucky’s proposal in Emigrant Gulch. In September, the agency asked Crevice to resubmit its application, which Crevice has not done yet.

The groups are also working to ensure people remain aware of the mining proposals. Katabatic Brewing Company, a microbrewery in Livingston, is brewing the Clean Water Pilsner, a special edition beer meant to raise awareness of the two projects. The brewery is a member of the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, a group of more than 250 businesses that formed in opposition to the mining proposals.

LaNette Diaz, the brewery’s owner, said on Monday that the beer will be both a celebration of the temporary ban on new claims and a conversation starter for how they will continue their efforts to prevent industrial-scale mining.

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

Michael Wright covers the environment and wildlife issues for the Chronicle.

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