Federal officials are discussing how to expedite their mining ban analysis for land in the Paradise Valley just north of Yellowstone National Park.
After a pair of mining companies announced their intent to explore claims in Emigrant Gulch and Jardine, Montana, conservation advocates and local activists and business owners started voicing their concerns, calling on state and federal leadership to block mining in the area.
Be they environmentally- or economically-minded, mining opponents fear both claims could threaten the region’s natural wonders and the integrity of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, officials with the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service are exploring ways to speed up the review and reach a decision ahead of the November 2018 deadline previously mandated by the Department of the Interior.
We previously reported then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell decision to place a two-year moratorium and review of mining claims on 30,000 acres of Forest Service land in the Paradise Valley adjacent to the claims. U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) drafted the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, which would permanently withdraw the 30,000 acres from mining claims, in response to local activism and the Interior’s decision.
The call to ban further mining has recently intensified after the Montana Department of Environmental Quality gave one company (Canadian company Lucky Minerals Inc.) the go-ahead to perform exploratory drilling on their Emigrant Gulch claim.
Indeed, in late August, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced his support for a mining ban, adding he wants to see the analysis sped up. Further, Zinke announced his support for a 20-year mining ban. From the Chronicle:
In an Aug. 23 letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who oversees the Forest Service, Zinke wrote that he would direct the Bureau of Land Management to provide a geologist and mineral examiner to help out to “bring this effort to a conclusion as soon as possible.” He also offered to send additional resources if the Forest Service needs them.
This week, Zinke spokeswoman Heather Swift said in an email that she didn’t know when the BLM employees would start work on the project or where they would be coming from or whether they would be full or part-time.
Teri Seth, a spokeswoman for the Custer Gallatin National Forest, which is overseeing the analysis, said they hadn’t received specific guidance on how to speed the process up. She also said that local officials from both agencies are in talks about how to make the process move more quickly.
“Both agencies are looking at the schedule now to see if it can be expedited,” she said. “We’re working on that now.”
Seth said the Forest Service already has about a dozen people working on that project amidst several others. Some are from the Custer Gallatin National Forest, some are from the Forest Service’s regional office in Missoula. The team includes biologists, hydrologists, economists and other area specialists.
Two geologists have done work on the project, and a mineral examiner from the agency’s Washington, D.C., office is assigned to it. Seth couldn’t say whether additional geologists and mineral examiners, which Zinke offered in his letter, would make the process faster. She also said the work is not behind schedule.
“We’re on schedule with what we said we could do,” Seth said.
Swift said Zinke offered those two positions because of their expertise.
“The BLM has resource specialists who have significant experience assessing the impacts of proposed mineral withdrawals and the secretary offered these scientists in order to speed up the process,” Swift said.
The letter also asks that the review be expanded to include other minerals, like phosphates, coal and natural gas. Swift said that indicates that Zinke is offering “more comprehensive protection for the Paradise Valley.”
The Chronicle notes that Zinke’s letter came at the end of a controversial “monument review.” Following an executive order in April 2017, Zinke began a review of 27 national monuments designated since 1996, which includes Montana’s Upper Missouri Breaks. At the end of the review, Zinke said no monuments should be rescinded but suggested changes to at least three, including the recently designated (and hotly contested) Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah.
It’s worth noting, however, that Zinke spoke out against mining north of Yellowstone as Montana’s at-large representative in the U.S. House. Indeed, Swift told the Chronicle the Paradise Valley mining ban, “was a project the secretary brought to the office on day one.”