Chronicle Staff Writer
BIG TIMBER — The airplane left the runway and headed west to the edge of the Absaroka Range and then south to Emigrant Gulch, a narrow canyon that extends behind Chico Hot Springs. Emigrant Creek cuts through it, lined by steep, rust-colored slopes. Flown by a pilot for the non-profit EcoFlight, the plane went up and down the canyon, showing the land where a Canadian mining company wants to look for gold.
Lucky Minerals Inc. applied last year to do exploratory drilling on both federal and private land. Though it pulled its federal application, Lucky is one of two companies with applications to look for gold on private land in the mountains of Paradise Valley. Environmental groups and local businesses have raised concerns that the exploration will lead to a large mine that will harm wildlife, water quality and the tourism business that the region thrives on.
Now, more than a year after Lucky’s exploration plans were released, opponents of the mine have shifted their focus away from fighting off one company and toward preventing mining on public lands there for as long as possible.
“Our long-term goal is to protect the public lands,” said Karrie Kahle, a special events coordinator at Chico Hot Springs and a member of the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition.
The Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, which includes more than 200 businesses and works closely with local environmental groups, is pushing for the U.S. Forest Service to apply for an administrative mineral withdrawal through the Secretary of the Interior on about 31,000 acres of federal land near the two proposed exploration areas.
Since its formation in March, the Business Coalition has launched a new website, lobbied in Washington, D.C., procured an economic report and produced videos to gin up support for its cause. Last Wednesday, they teamed up with EcoFlight to offer reporters and Montana congressional staffers a flight over the gulch.
An administrative mineral withdrawal would temporarily prevent any new mining claims on federal land. The proposal would be subject to review as lined out by the National Environmental Policy Act, and could take years to complete.
The group has also asked Montana’s congressional delegation to look for a way to get a permanent withdrawal.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester has expressed opposition for the two mines in the Paradise Valley, and said in a statement that the area north of Yellowstone is “too special to dig or drill.”
A spokeswoman for Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines said in a statement that a solution “must respect private property while preserving this special part of Montana.” A spokeswoman for Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke did not respond to an email requesting comment, but the congressman told the editorial board for the Livingston Enterprise that he opposes mining in the Paradise Valley near Yellowstone.
The idea does have critics. Tammy Johnson, the executive director of the Montana Mining Association, said that the areas the group has focused on are both historic mining districts, and that companies should be allowed to explore as long as they follow the law.
She said the environmental standards for mining are stringent enough, and that existing claims there would need to be recognized.
“In our view, we feel that it is absolutely unnecessary,” Johnson said.
Chico’s Kahle, whose significant other works at the Yellowstone Valley Lodge, believes the withdrawal is necessary to prevent large scale mining from harming the economic stability of the valley.
“For us, it’s really personal,” Kahle said.
A mineral withdrawal on public land wouldn’t affect either of the two current mining proposals in the area, since both are on private land.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality is conducting a legal review on the environmental assessment for Lucky Minerals Inc. The other proposal, from the Spokane-based Crevice Mining Group LLC, stalled after DEQ sent the application back to the company seeking more information. Crevice can resubmit the application, but DEQ hasn’t heard whether Crevice plans to do so.
Michael Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.