Congress is one step closer to passing a ban on mining near Yellowstone National Park, but members of Montana’s delegation don’t agree on all aspects of the legislation.
On Thursday, Montana Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte introduced legislation that would ban mining on public lands near the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Two companies are seeking to develop gold mines there and local residents and businesses say the projects could pollute waterways and discourage tourism.
“Not every place is the right place for a mine and I’ve been clear since the beginning that this is not the right place,” says Gianforte.
The congressman's legislation is identical to a bill Democratic Montana Senator Jon Tester introduced earlier this year.
Having two bills in congress could grease the wheels for a faster ban, says Dale Sexton. He’s a founding member of the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, a group opposing the mines.
“When a bill is before the House of Representatives and a bill is before the Senate, if the bills are the same, to my knowledge, it seems much more seamless,” Sexton says, meaning the passage of the measure would be streamlined.
But Montana’s Republican senator, Steve Daines, says, at least on its own, Tester’s bill won’t get enough support in the Senate to pass. Daines suggests pairing that bill with legislation he introduced ending wilderness study area protections on 500,000 acres of federal land in Montana.
Also known as WSAs, Wilderness Study Areas are places under review by congress for wilderness designation. They are closed off to resource extraction, logging and certain bicycle and motorized vehicle use.
“Pairing these would be one path forward to get what we need to get done here for Paradise Valley,” Daines says.
Sexton says pairing the bills is a farce.
“It really muddies the water," he says. "The WSAs have nothing to do with what the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act hopes to achieve.”
Tester also opposes pairing the bills.
“You combine those two bills and it makes a very non-controversial bill in my Yellowstone mine removal bill into a controversial one," he says. "Removing WSAs is a very controversial issue.”
While Tester supported removing WSAs in his 2013 Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, he says he also proposed new wilderness designations in that same legislation.
“All he’s asking for is WSA removal without a bigger package of protection of watersheds, hunting and fishing areas that are critically important," he says. "If you look at the folks who have endorsed his bill, there’s not one conservation group that’s endorsed it.”
Some conservation groups in Montana endorsed Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which ultimately failed to pass.
Tester’s bill that would ban mining near the park is currently languishing in the Senate. The last action happened five months ago, when hearings were held in the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests, and Mining. As for Gianforte’s version, he says the next step is a hearing in the House Committee on Natural Resources.