There weren't many fireworks, but supporters got a whiff of political headwinds working against a bill to permanently ban new mining claims in the mountains north of Yellowstone National Park during a U.S. House subcommittee hearing on Thursday, as the committee's Republican chair signaled his opposition to it. 

The Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana, was heard by the energy and minerals subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee. The bill, H.R. 4644, would withdraw mineral rights from 30,000 acres of federal land in the mountains east of the Paradise Valley, a move supporters see as a way to prevent the development of a large-scale mine. 

The committee's chairman, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Arizona, criticized the bill at the outset of the hearing, saying he's generally opposed to mineral withdrawals and that they tend to deepen the country's dependence on foreign minerals. He also said it wasn't clear whether banning new claims to preserve land was worth the loss of potential revenue from mining there.

"That is a major step," Gosar said. "I am not sure here today that we have the comprehensive clarity yet to take that step."

Gosar was the only person to signal opposition to the bill at the hearing. The top Democrat on the committee said it was a good bill and should move easily through the House.

The bill is a companion to one sponsored by Montana's Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, which was heard by a Senate committee in the summer of 2017. The congressional delegation said the measure was nearly included in a budget deal passed this March, and supporters hoped the hearing in the House would increase its chances of passage. 

Gianforte said he sponsored the measure because of a groundswell of support from the local community, which began when mining proposals first popped up in 2015. 

"The consensus of the community and the leadership there is clear: They do not want mining in Paradise Valley at the doors of Yellowstone National Park," Gianforte said. 

Colin Davis, the owner of Chico Hot Springs and a founder of the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, also spoke at the hearing. He told the committee that mining in the area would threaten his business, and that the bill was "an insurance policy for our economic future."

"Not by any stretch of the imagination is Paradise Valley an appropriate place for a large-scale, open pit gold mine," Davis said.

Caroline Byrd, executive director of Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said after the hearing that she is pleased with the momentum the House subcommittee meeting brings the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act.

"Everyone agrees Yellowstone is more valuable than gold. Both Sen. Tester and Rep. Gianforte have introduced bills to protect Yellowstone from gold mining. Sen. (Steve) Daines now has to step up and make good on his pledge to move the bill out of committee by August. The ball is in his court," Byrd said.

After the hearing, Daines said, "Greg’s legislation is a step in the right direction to protect Paradise Valley, and I am supportive.”

Tester said hundreds of Montana business owners are demanding that Congress pass this bill because their livelihoods depend on it.

“There are no excuses. Both the House and Senate should hold votes on this legislation immediately,” Tester said.

The fight over mining there began three years ago when Canada-based Lucky Minerals Inc. proposed looking for gold in Emigrant Gulch. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality approved the company's private land drilling plans last summer, though opponents are seeking to block the work with a legal challenge. Around the same time, Spokane, Washington-based Crevice Mining Group proposed looking for gold on Crevice Mountain, near Jardine. 

Locals and environmentalists worry the projects will result in large-scale mines with the potential for acid mine drainage that could harm wildlife and water quality. They also worry about the region's tourism-based economy. 

The mining companies dispute that, saying mining can be done safely and that their projects would help the local economy. 

The ban would only affect new mining claims. A two-year ban instituted by the Obama administration is set to run out this fall. Under the Trump administration, officials with the U.S. Forest Service have proposed extending the ban to last 20 years — the maximum term the agency can propose. 

It was the second bill hearing of the day for Gianforte. His two bills to remove wilderness study area designations from swaths of federal land in Montana were heard by a subcommittee earlier Thursday morning. Those measures garner vitriol from many who support the mineral withdrawal bill, as they see removing the designations as an attack on public land conservation. 

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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