Yellowstone Mining

The Yellowstone River is shown in Montana’s Paradise Valley with Emigrant Peak in the background near Pray in 2016. A massive public lands package including a ban on new mining claims north of Yellowstone and the renewal of a popular conservation fund has now become law.

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A massive public lands package including a ban on new mining claims north of Yellowstone and the renewal of a popular conservation fund has now become law.

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed S. 47, a broad legislative package including land designations and more affecting areas across the country. It sailed through the House and Senate with lopsided votes in its favor.

The bill includes two pieces that Montana’s congressional delegation pushed for — the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, which would bar new mining claims on 30,000 acres of public land north of Yellowstone National Park, and the permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

All three members of the Montana delegation voted for the bill.

Montana’s Republican Sen. Steve Daines attended the signing ceremony at the White House. During a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon, Daines said the bill brought together lawmakers on both sides of a divided government.

“We saw an example of bipartisan cooperation, bipartisan collaboration,” Daines said.

Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte was also at the White House for the signing, and he praised the bill in a statement afterward.

“Today we celebrate this new law, this victory for Montana,” Gianforte said. “Communities throughout Montana came together in support of conserving our public lands, and they deserve a lot of credit for getting this across the finish line.”

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester said in a statement that the bill’s signing “marks a victory for all of the Montanans who value our public lands and the businesses that rely on our growing outdoor economy.”

“This bill — which is now the law of the land — is further proof that when folks speak up and work together, we can change our state for the better,” Tester said.

The renewal of LWCF comes five months after Congress allowed the fund to expire. Filled by offshore drilling royalties, the fund has been used to pay for conservation and land access projects nationwide. Many of Bozeman’s city parks and nearby trailheads have received the money, as have many of Montana’s Fishing Access Sites.

Several conservation groups simultaneously praised the lands bill and lambasted the president’s budget proposal, which they argue doesn’t put enough money into the fund. Tracy Stone-Manning, of the National Wildlife Federation, said in an emailed statement that it was ironic that permanent renewal came alongside the budget proposal, which she said “shows the president is not putting his money where his mouth is.”

Tester criticized the budget proposal as an attempt to gut LWCF’s funding.

“I hope the President’s cheerleaders put money where their mouth is and fully fund this critical conservation initiative,” Tester said.

During the press call, Daines said the funding level for LWCF isn’t determined by a president’s budget proposal, but by Congress. Both he and Tester sit on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Daines said they’ll push for more money for the fund.

“You’re going to see both of us standing strong for full funding of LWCF,” Daines said.

Local groups cheered Tuesday’s bill signing as the final step for the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, which they hope will keep two gold mining companies from expanding in the area.

The act withdraws mineral rights from 30,000 acres of federal land in the Absaroka Mountains east of the Paradise Valley. The withdrawal area is split between two areas near where two companies want to mine — one near Emigrant Peak and the other near the town of Jardine.

Locals and environmentalists have opposed the two projects since they were first proposed nearly four years ago, arguing that mining could harm the environment and the region’s tourism-based economy. A permanent mineral withdrawal blocks any new mining claims on public land, which mine opponents say is key to preventing large-scale mining.

“Today is a momentous day for Yellowstone National Park and the robust economy and outdoor heritage at its northern gateway,” said Caroline Byrd, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, in a statement.

Colin Davis, owner of Chico Hot Springs and a founder of the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, said in a statement that the bill “is as much about the people who live here, as it is about the forests, the mountains, and the river that runs through the heart of it all.”

Both companies looking to mine in the area have claims on private land that are unaffected by the withdrawal. Existing rights on public land will also be unaffected.

One company, Lucky Minerals, has approval from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality for exploratory drilling on private land. That work hasn’t begun. John Mears, president of Lucky Minerals, said in an email that the withdrawal “really has no effect on us,” adding that the company will “continue with our current plans.”

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Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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