Forest officials and mining opponents are urgently waiting for the release of a report on a proposed 20-year mining ban outside Yellowstone National Park.
Indeed, officials have been waiting three weeks for the document.
According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the U.S. Forest Service announced March 6, 2018 that the report would be released “in the coming days,” which would open a public comment period. Since that announcement, however, the report has not surfaced.
Officials insist the report is still being reviewed by upper level staff at the U.S. Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture.
The ban would affect approximately 30,000 acres of forestland in Montana’s Paradise Valley, just north of Yellowstone National Park, where a pair of gold mining companies are hoping to set up shop. The area has been under a temporary mineral withdrawal since November 2016. From the Chronicle:
“We got ahead of ourselves here due to some miscommunication,” said David Smith, a spokesman for the agency’s Northern Regional Office in Missoula.
Smith said he and officials at the Custer Gallatin National Forest miscommunicated about whether the environmental assessment for the withdrawal had been fully vetted. Officials with the Custer Gallatin believed it had, so they sent “coming soon” notices the week of March 5.
But Smith said review at the upper levels of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Interior had just begun at the time.
Three weeks later, Smith said the vetting is still ongoing and the document is still coming soon. But nobody knows when.
“We do anticipate it will be fairly soon,” he said.
The current mineral withdrawal is slated to expire in November 2018.
Environmental and local business advocates argue any mining would endanger the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the regional recreational/tourism economy. Advocates have supported a 20-year ban but have also pushed for a permanent mineral withdrawal, which can only be done via an act of Congress.
In a statement to the Chronicle, Greater Yellowstone Coalition spokeswoman Beth Kampschror called the 20-year ban a “stopgap,” arguing that “the urgency is really real” when it comes to securing a permanent withdrawal.
To that end, U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) and U.S. Representative Greg Gianforte (R-MT) both introduced legislation to permanently withdraw the Paradise Valley parcel. The fate of that legislation is currently uncertain after that act was omitted from the omnibus spending bill brought to the floor last week.
Reportedly, the legislation stalled after failing to garner U.S. Senator Steve Daines’ (R-MT) support. Daines in turn blamed Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) for the bill’s omission. Schumer fired back, saying the bill was left behind due to Republican recalcitrance.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who previously served as Montana’s at-large representative in the U.S. House, has said he supports a mineral withdrawal, urging Interior officials to expedite their analysis and include whether a ban should also cover goal, gas, phosphates, and other minerals.
In the meantime, as officials wait for the release of the mining report, one gold mining company is moving ahead with exploratory drilling plans. After getting approval from Montana environmental officials, Lucky Minerals Inc. announced they would perform drilling sometime in 2018. The company also launched an effort to court mining opponents and bolster support among residents who already support gold mining in the region.