Surface Mining
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Congress Trying Again to Ban Mining on Public Lands North of Yellowstone

Published: January 10, 2019 |

Senator John Tester.

Senator John Tester.
[Click image to enlarge]

A bill to permanently ban new mining claims on 30,000 acres of public lands in the mountains north of Yellowstone National Park had a couple of near-misses in the last session of Congress, ultimately failing alongside a suite of other public lands legislation just before the government shutdown began in December.

New year, new Congress, same bill. The Montana delegation will try again.

On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, said he would reintroduce the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, which would withdraw mineral rights underneath U.S. Forest Service lands near where two companies want to mine. The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, and will officially be reintroduced Wednesday morning, according to Tester’s office. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana, plans to reintroduce the House version this week.

The measure was part of a public lands package that failed in the Senate in late December. The package consisted of a wide array of measures, including the renewal of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Montana’s senators said at the time that it would come back up for a vote in early 2019.

An exact date for that vote isn’t clear, and Tester said Tuesday morning that ending the government shutdown remains the center of attention in Washington, D.C. But he also said he thinks a vote on the suite of public lands bills could happen even before the end of the shutdown.

“The bottom line is I think this public lands package will come up whether the shutdown ends or not,” Tester said.

Tester said he hopes the reintroduction of the mineral withdrawal bill will help pressure Senate leaders for a vote on the public lands legislation. He said he wouldn’t be interested in a deal that advanced those bills but gave in too much to President Trump’s demand for border wall funding, saying “there’s been no plan put forward on how he’s going to spend the money.” He also said several senators are pushing for a vote on the lands measures.

Katie Schoettler, a Daines spokeswoman, said in an email that Daines is one of the senators making that push.

“The senator believes we can do it all — fund our government while protecting our national security, and vote on what will be one of the biggest accomplishments in conservation for Montana and the country in decades,” Schoettler said in an email.

The mineral withdrawal bill is identical to one Tester and Gianforte introduced in 2017. Daines, who has said he’s always been a supporter of the bill, was the last to sign on as a sponsor, doing so just before it failed in late December.

It would block new mining claims on a swath of public lands near Emigrant Peak and near Jardine. Separate mining companies have sought permission for exploratory drilling in the areas.

Environmentalists and locals have fought against the two proposals, arguing that the work could lead to large-scale mines with the potential to sully the environment and harm the region’s tourism-based economy. They believe the withdrawal will hamper any expansion plans the companies have, and could prevent large-scale development.

In October, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ordered a 20-year withdrawal — the longest term he could order. Supporters of the moratorium rejoiced but said they would continue pushing for permanent protection.

The bill cleared committee hearings in both the House and the Senate during the last Congress. It was close to passage during budget talks last spring, and again in December as part of the lands package.

Karrie Kahle, community director for the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, thanked Tester for introducing the bill again in a statement sent Tuesday.

“We have never been in a stronger position to pass this legislation thanks to a fully united Montana delegation,” Kahle said.

Source: Bozeman Daily Chronicle


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