Why you should care

Because some things are worth more than gold.

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The economic ripple effect of Yellowstone National Park reaches 78 miles north, to Bozeman, Montana. There, tourists pack into through-the-roof expensive rental cars or, increasingly, shuffle into one of the nearly 13,000 tour buses that entered the park last year. The visitors and their wallets, which bulge with about 200 million in tourism dollars each year, head east to pit stop Livingston and then south to tiny Gardiner. These towns and others on the park’s dusty doorstep swell in summer months with buffalo sightseers and fly fishermen until frontier motels hang No Occupancy signs. A bookstore café’s yellow poster says it all: “Yellowstone is more valuable than gold.”

Maybe not. Resource companies have submitted queries to both the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Forest Service to begin scouring the park’s doorstep for gold, aiming to secure contracts to build two mines on federal lands surrounding Yellowstone. Last year, the Obama administration put a two-year moratorium on mining the land, and Montana’s Democratic senator, Jon Tester, has proposed a bill to protect it permanently. Temporarily, the area is untouched, and Donald Trump so far has hesitated to overturn his predecessor’s ban. Yet such protections might not last, here or nationwide. Last July, the Republican Party wrote into its platform that it was “absurd” for “official Washington” to control so much of the nation’s land, demanding that Congress “convey certain federally controlled public lands to states.”

It’s generally accepted that [federal] agencies do not have the authority to say no to mining.

Robert Keiter, director, Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment

The federal government owns some 640 million acres, mostly in the West, and the GOP stance has already been echoed in attempts to grab federal land in conservative-controlled states such as Idaho and Utah. Trump has stopped short of turning public lands over to the states or to private hands, but he has started opening them to corporate use, encouraging fossil fuel development in previously safe spaces and exploring de-authorization of recently created national monuments. Last week, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called for fewer barriers to development on federal land. Critics worry that such policies will expose the wilderness to pollution, especially against the backdrop of a hamstrung Environmental Protection Agency. Should the GOP legislature lean on Trump, it could test the allegiances of the billionaire, who previously said he opposed state control because he wanted “to keep the lands great.”

One of the earliest battlegrounds for these conflicting interests is Paradise Valley, the idyllic Montana entryway into Yellowstone and a suggested site for the gold mines. Thousands of feet above the ground, a single-engine Cessna sputters toward the valley. Its shadow passes over Chico Hot Springs Resort, a major economic engine hereabouts whose owner recently remarked online that pollution runoff from the Emigrant Creek mine — proposed by Canadian company Lucky Minerals Inc. — would shut down his business if it reached the resort’s lone hot-water source or its one cold-water source.

Winding between snowcapped mountains and arched ridges, the plane floats past the land staked by Spokane, Washington–based Crevice Mining Group. A small miner’s inclusion already allows for drilling on up to 5 acres, but the company has plans to ask for a bigger footprint. From above, it’s easy to see where the crest of those ridges ends: the northern park boundary. “This proposal would literally leave a hole filling up with water on the border,” says the Yellowstone Business Coalition’s Joe Josephson from the cockpit. That water, possibly contaminated with typical mine byproducts, he says, would flow down, into the Yellowstone River.

But Michael Werner, head of Crevice Mining Group, disputes that narrative. If water was discharged, he says, it would flow into nearby Bear Creek, not the Yellowstone River. At any rate, the permit is for a dry mine, so the company would have to stop work if it hit water. Then there are the economic benefits. The area has a historic mineral inventory of 850,000 ounces of gold — more than $1 trillion at today’s prices — and the mine’s budget is expected to be $35 million annually for at least eight years, with “roughly 40 to 60 percent” going to wages and benefits, Werner says. Lucky Minerals Inc. did not respond to a request for comment.

Land law is complex, says Robert Keiter, director of the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment at the University of Utah law school. Previous attempts by states to transfer federal land, such as the Sagebrush Rebellion (starting in the late 1970s) and the wise-use movement (in the ’90s) have mostly failed. Still, the General Mining Act of 1872 gives miners property rights if they discover valuable deposits on federal land. “It’s generally accepted that [federal] agencies do not have the authority to say no to mining,” Keiter says. They can require, however, that mines pass environmental regulations (neither Montana project has passed those state or federal checks yet). “Once the leases are met, the land is subject to intensive industrial development, which may conflict with our resource values,” Keiter says.

Gettyimages 483685906

Cement Creek, which was flooded with millions of gallons of mining wastewater, flows into the Animas River in Silverton, Colorado.

Source Theo Stroomer / Getty Images

Nationally, opposition to such projects have been diverse, with conservative conservationists lining up next to liberal environmentalists to take on the prospect of state control over federal lands. Given the chance, Republican lawmakers have shown they would gladly make federal-to-state swaps. In January, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a rule that made it easier to transfer land, and in February, Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz advanced a bill to hand 3 million acres over to states. He soon withdrew the bill amid widespread condemnation, with some constituents complaining it would decrease hunting and fishing access. This spring, Idaho lawmakers proposed a bill to revoke consent for state lands sold to the federal government — similar acts have been ruled unconstitutional — while promising their intent was to profit from, not sell off, those lands.

In Montana, anti-mining activists come from split backgrounds too. Left-leaning Nathan Borelli, who organizes local wolf-tracking trips, sees “a disturbing trend where the privatization of these lands tends to lead to exploitation.” Conservative Sabina Strauss, who owns the Yellowstone Basin Inn, says she prefers local control in most cases but worries that gold mines would unnecessarily risk the “pristine environment” that fuels her business. Her nightmare scenario is the Animas River in Colorado, which turned orange after 3 million gallons of waste from a closed mine were accidentally released in 2015. Strauss adds: “Here, the issue is not divided along party lines at all.”

PART OF A SPECIAL SERIES FROM OZY
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