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Montana Court Agrees Yellowstone Gateway More Valuable Than Gold

Thanks to Earthjustice litigation, a district court judge has ruled that state regulators illegally ignored impacts to water quality and wildlife when approving the exploratory drilling project.

An access road for drilling rigs and heavy equipment would run through this landscape if two proposed mines are constructed near Yellowstone's northern entrance.

An access road for drilling rigs and heavy equipment would run through this landscape if two proposed mines are constructed near Yellowstone’s northern entrance.

Photo Courtesy of William Campbell

Sleeping bag, check. Bug spray, check. Backpack, check.

As people across the country eagerly prepare for their summer vacations, residents and businesses of Park County, Montana, are gearing up to greet them. As the northern gateway to Yellowstone National Park, the aptly named Paradise Valley is itself a destination.

Enjoyed by locals throughout the year, tourists flock to this area to enjoy the full array of the Yellowstone region’s iconic wildlife and magnificent landscapes and to catch a native cutthroat trout in the Yellowstone River’s blue-ribbon fishery. With a lot riding on the tourist season, one thing Park County locals shouldn’t have to worry about is a massive new gold mine driving away tourists. The likelihood of that happening is much less now that a district court has ordered Montana’s regulators to reconsider allowing intensive mineral exploration in the area.

Proposed in 2015 by Canada-based Lucky Minerals, mineral exploration is just the first step in the company’s plans to develop a large-scale gold mine in Paradise Valley that would cause irreversible environmental harm to the park and fray the economic fabric of the region. Travelers gazing at the majestic Emigrant Peak jutting up from the Absaroka Mountains—a refuge for bighorn sheep, elk, grizzly bears, wolverines, and other creatures—would be confronted with the destruction of an industrial mining operation.

But a blemished view of the cinematic Yellowstone landscape is just one of the problems anticipated with this proposal. At full scale, the Emigrant mine would threaten to send acid runoff flowing into tributaries of the Yellowstone River, while nearly 100,000 tons of waste rock containing elevated levels of arsenic would be dumped near tributary headwaters. Even mineral exploration alone threatens to pollute these waters with heavy metals and acid runoff.

Emigrant Gulch aerial view looking east from Emigrant Peak. Lucky Minerials has mine claims on both sides of the gulch on both private and public land.
Emigrant Gulch aerial view
Photo courtesy of William Campbell

Mining and mineral exploration would also carve up precious habitat for endangered grizzly bears, which are already in peril after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife delisted the species in June 2017. (Earthjustice is challenging the agency’s decision.) Wolverines, lynx, elk and other species would also be harmed, as would the local community, which relies on large swaths of connected wildland to support sustainable recreation and a healthy tourist economy. Barreling ahead with gold mining and exploration for short-term financial gain could come at the expense of the primary driver of economic growth in the Yellowstone area: an intact landscape that attracts millions of visitors from around the globe and supports a diverse business community and highly skilled workforce.

Earthjustice, together with local and regional groups, challenged the gold exploration proposal in September 2017 under the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA), arguing that state regulators downplayed and dismissed some very serious environmental risks posed by the project. Those include potentially long-term harm to the iconic wildlife of the Yellowstone region, particularly grizzly bears and wolverines, and threats to clean water in Yellowstone River tributaries. We also argued that the state didn’t seriously consider the potential that this exploration could lead to much larger-scale development. The court agreed with us on all of our claims.

“The court’s ruling recognized that exploratory drilling is the leading edge of a much larger threat to these sensitive lands in Yellowstone’s gateway,” says Earthjustice attorney Jenny Harbine, who represented the groups. “We will continue our fight to stop Lucky’s plans to profit by placing our water, wildlife, and magnificent natural landscapes at risk.”

Though this latest decision is a substantial victory, the fight is far from over. Lucky Minerals could insist on proceeding with gold exploration this summer while regulators conduct a new environmental analysis. If that happens, Earthjustice will go back to court to defend the park and all of its beauty from this short-sighted proposal.

An earlier version of this blog post was published in November 2016.

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