A wide swath of wilderness north of Yellowstone National Park will be protected from new mining claims over the next two decades.
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has signed an order that protects 30-thousand acres in Montana's Paradise Valley after proposals were introduced to start two new gold mines there.
The protected area includes prime habitat for wildlife including wolves, elk and grizzly bears. It's a tourist destination that sees spillover visitors from Yellowstone National Park, and there are a lot of hikers and outdoor enthusiasts who gather here to take in the landscape.
“There’s places to mine, and there’s places not to mine. And you have to look at the American conservation ethic of best science, best practices, greatest good, longest term.”
The former Montana congressman is a Republican who became interior secretary after Donald Trump was elected president. Zinke and the Trump administration have faced criticism from Democrats and environmental groups who complain they often side with industry when it comes to the management of natural resources. But Zinke says he's been supportive of efforts to protect this part of Montana for a long time.
Monday, Zinke signed an order that effectively extends a previous order put in place by former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in 2016 under President Barack Obama.
Noticeably absent from the signing ceremony were representatives with the mining companies who had proposed opening new claims here. But, down the road, journalists spotted the president and CEO of Lucky Minerals, who was standing with a sign that posed the question of why Zinke didn't spend time talking with him about the projects. In this exchange with a news reporter, Zinke had this response about the efforts to start new mining projects in the area.
“Lucky Minerals, one of the companies that’s looking to explore, he says he’s gonna move ahead regardless. Do you think that this will stop those sort of projects? Existing projects?”
“Oh, I think so. And I would say sleep well tonight.”
Lucky Minerals, headquartered in Vancouver, Canada, is one of the companies that had applied to explore Paradise Valley and Gardiner Basin for gold.
There's evidence here of previous small scale mining decades ago. The latest two proposals asked permission to explore for gold and other hard minerals on public lands. That drew protests from locals who live and have businesses around the proposed mining sites.
Bryan Wells is with the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition.
“This issue has been good for me, and it’s good for this valley, I believe, because it’s brought people together, people who probably would not mix, and I’ve made some wonderful friends, and we haven’t always agreed on things, but we have always agreed that this place is worth preserving.”
Most of the land to be protected from new mining is within the Custer Gallatin National Forest, but the underground minerals are managed by the U.S. Interior Department. Zinke framed the order as bipartisan, and he borrowed a line President Trump has used at political rallies.
“Public lands is not a Republican or a Democrat issue. It’s an American issue. And there are some things that are more important than politics, so today is an example of a promise made is a promise kept.”
Meanwhile, members of Montana's congressional delegation are working on a permanent mining ban for the area.
U.S. Democratic Senator Jon Tester and Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte, both up for re-election in November, are working on similar measures that have received some attention on Capitol Hill. Tester's permanent mining ban proposal has received initial support from Republican U.S. Senator Steve Daines.