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BLM and Forest Service in Talks About Speeding Up Mining Ban Analysis, Montana

Published: September 11, 2017 |

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Federal officials are working out how exactly they can speed up the review of a potential ban on new mining claims in an area north of Yellowstone National Park after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke urged that it move faster in a letter late last month.

For months, the U.S. Forest Service has been working on the formal environmental review of a potential mineral withdrawal on 30,000 acres of public land east of the Paradise Valley and near where two gold mining companies have exploratory drilling plans.

It began in 2016 when the Obama administration ordered a two-year ban on new claims in the area meant to give time for the analysis, and the process will culminate with Zinke making a decision on whether to extend that ban for as long as 20 years.

In an Aug. 23 letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who oversees the Forest Service, Zinke wrote that he would direct the Bureau of Land Management to provide a geologist and mineral examiner to help out to “bring this effort to a conclusion as soon as possible.” He also offered to send additional resources if the Forest Service needs them.

This week, Zinke spokeswoman Heather Swift said in an email that she didn’t know when the BLM employees would start work on the project or where they would be coming from or whether they would be full or part-time.

Teri Seth, a spokeswoman for the Custer Gallatin National Forest, which is overseeing the analysis, said they hadn’t received specific guidance on how to speed the process up. She also said that local officials from both agencies are in talks about how to make the process move more quickly.

“Both agencies are looking at the schedule now to see if it can be expedited,” she said. “We’re working on that now.”

The talk of a ban on new claims grew out of concerns that locals had with the plans of two gold mining companies in the mountains east of the Paradise Valley. They worry the companies’ exploration plans could lead to large-scale gold mines with the potential to harm water quality and the region’s tourism-based economy. Zinke had voiced opposition to the two mines when he was Montana’s lone U.S. House member.

Opponents of the mines believe a ban on new claims will hamper those companies by limiting their ability to expand. The only way for new claims to be banned permanently is through legislation. Montana’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester has introduced such a bill, but it hasn’t advanced out of committee.

Supporters of the ban see the temporary option as a valuable time-out. The Forest Service is in charge of the environmental analysis for the project. Once the analysis is done, the BLM will review it and make recommendations to Zinke. He will have the final say on whether the ban is extended.

Seth said the Forest Service already has about a dozen people working on that project amidst several others. Some are from the Custer Gallatin National Forest, some are from the Forest Service’s regional office in Missoula. The team includes biologists, hydrologists, economists and other area specialists.

Two geologists have done work on the project, and a mineral examiner from the agency’s Washington, D.C., office is assigned to it. Seth couldn’t say whether additional geologists and mineral examiners, which Zinke offered in his letter, would make the process faster. She also said the work is not behind schedule.

“We’re on schedule with what we said we could do,” Seth said.

Swift said Zinke offered those two positions because of their expertise.

“The BLM has resource specialists who have significant experience assessing the impacts of proposed mineral withdrawals and the secretary offered these scientists in order to speed up the process,” Swift said.

The letter also asks that the review be expanded to include other minerals, like phosphates, coal and natural gas. Swift said that indicates that Zinke is offering “more comprehensive protection for the Paradise Valley.”

The letter came toward the end of Zinke’s review of national monuments throughout the country, for which he was criticized heavily by conservation groups. By contrast, this letter, which was first reported by the Associated Press, drew him praise from locals opposed to the mines.

Karrie Kahle, the community director for the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, said in a statement the day the AP reported the letter’s existence that the group “thanks Secretary Zinke for his continued leadership on this issue. This timeout protects our businesses, our jobs, our healthy economy, and the clean water and natural beauty that fuel us all.”

When asked if the timing of the letter was a coincidence, Swift said, “There is a lot of work happening at the department. Protecting the Paradise Valley and Yellowstone was a project the secretary brought to the office on day one.”

Source: Bozeman Daily Chronicle


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