On October 8, 2018, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke finalized a 20-year withdrawal of more than 30,000 acres north of Yellowstone Park in Montana. First proposed under the Obama administration, the withdrawal effectively prevents the development of two large gold mine proposals on National Forest lands in Emigrant Gulch and Crevice Mountain. The withdrawal responds to calls from the local community to preserve the clean water, rich wildlife habitat, and wildness of this spectacular landscape within the Yellowstone ecosystem.
What it means:
The mineral withdrawal prohibits new mining claims on public lands in the Custer-Gallatin National Forest, and prevents Canadian mining company Lucky Minerals from conducting mineral exploration or developing a gold mine on its roughly 2,000 acres of mining claims on National Forest lands within Emigrant Gulch. However, notwithstanding the withdrawal of public lands, Lucky Minerals has stated that it still intends to pursue mineral exploration on adjacent lands that were privatized by gold speculators many years ago under the 1872 Mining Law. Thus, while the mineral withdrawal is an important step toward protecting Yellowstone’s gateway, Earthjustice’s lawsuit to defeat Lucky Minerals’ plans to conduct private-lands mineral exploration remains an essential backstop against industrializing this landscape.
On Sept. 22, 2017, Earthjustice, on behalf of Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Park County Environmental Council, filed a lawsuit challenging the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s approval of extensive mineral exploration in Emigrant Gulch near Park County’s Paradise Valley.
If the mineral exploration project went forward, it would have introduced industrial activity in a remote landscape that includes Yellowstone River tributaries and is in the heart of the Paradise Valley. The project would have been the first step in Lucky’s plans to develop large-scale gold mining that would threaten Park County’s tourism economy, which depends on clean water and access to the County’s spectacular public lands, the groups say.
On July 26, 2017, DEQ approved the exploratory drilling
— which would occur 24 hours each day between July 15 and October 15 for two consecutive years — after finding that exploratory drilling would not cause any significant environmental harm.
On May 25, 2018, a Montana state court ruled
that “the DEQ’s analysis ... was arbitrary, capricious and not supported by substantial evidence ... its decision violated MEPA [Montana Environmental Policy Act].”
What is important about the protection announced in 2016 for Yellowstone by the Departments of Interior and Agriculture?
On Nov. 21, 2016, a two-year time-out on gold exploration near Yellowstone National Park was announced
by the Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture. The gold exploration activity could have led to two large-scale gold mines
bordering Yellowstone’s northern entrance. This pause on new mining claims on more than 30,000 acres of public land occurred through a proposed “mineral withdrawal,” which will provide longer-term protection (up to 20 years), if finalized.
The withdrawal was requested by the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition
, along with local and national environmental organizations, out of concern about the effect of the mines on important wildlife habitat, the potential for acid runoff to degrade the Yellowstone River’s water quality and world-famous fishery, and harm to the region’s thriving economy.
What is a “mineral withdrawal”?
A “withdrawal” is an action by the Secretary of the Interior that limits mining activity in a specific area of public lands in order to maintain other public values in the area, or for reserving the area for a particular public purpose or program. These values and purposes may include protecting the quality of scientific, scenic, historical, ecological, environmental, air, water, or archaeological resources, or for other special purposes.
In this case, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is proposing to withdraw an area of public lands in Emigrant Gulch and Crevice Mountain from mineral development, totaling 30,000 acres. If finalized by the Secretary of the Interior, the withdrawal will prevent new mining claims and activities such as exploration and mine development. 43 U.S.C. § 1702(j); 43 C.F.R. § 2300-0-5(h).
While mineral withdrawals prohibit new mining claims, they are subject to valid existing rights
, meaning that the rights of existing claim holders to mine valuable mineral deposits they have already discovered are not affected by the proposed withdrawal.
Why was a mineral withdrawal proposed?
More than 250 local businesses
that would be harmed by large-scale mining in Emigrant Gulch and Crevice Mountain — forming the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition
— asked the U.S. Forest Service and BLM to withdraw public lands that might be subject to mining. The Business Coalition views withdrawal as the only way to ensure that the Park County community has a voice in the future of these lands and the local economy they support.
Why is a mineral withdrawal necessary?
Mining on National Forest and BLM-managed lands throughout the West is primarily governed by the 1872 Mining Law. This outdated law allows people — including citizens and foreign-backed corporations — to mine federal public lands without paying rents or royalties, and to shut out the public from these lands. Through this law, private corporations profit by polluting and irreversibly scarring the landscape.
The only way to ensure that this does not happen to public lands in Emigrant Gulch and Crevice Mountain is to withdraw these public lands from operation of the 1872 Mining Law, and thereby prevent new mineral exploration and mine development.
What effect does a withdrawal have on other uses, like recreation?
A withdrawal removes a specific area of public lands from only one particular use — mining. The mineral withdrawal does not affect any other uses of the land. In fact, closing an area to mining benefits all other users of public lands because mining cannot be the dominant use.
What is the mineral withdrawal process?
The U.S. Forest Service and BLM proposed a mineral withdrawal. This is not a final decision. The proposal initiates a two-year pause on new mining activities, called a “segregation period.” No new mining claims may be staked or mining activity approved within these areas while the segregation is in effect.
During the segregation period, the U.S. Forest Service and BLM will conduct studies to analyze the environmental effects of withdrawing the lands. The agencies will then publish a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or Environmental Assessment (EA) presenting this information and analysis for public review and comment. The agencies will then revise the EIS or EA in response to comments received from the public and from other agencies. Once this is completed, the U.S. Forest Service and BLM issue a final EIS or EA. This document will provide the basis for the Secretary of the Interior’s final decision whether to withdraw the lands from mining.
If approved, the withdrawal would be in effect for a maximum of 20 years.
What effect does the withdrawal proposal have on current mineral exploration proposals in Emigrant Gulch and Crevice Mountain?
The withdrawal proposal and final withdrawal halt new mine development on public lands managed by the Custer-Gallatin National Forest. However, they do not stop mineral exploration and development on private lands.
Both the Emigrant Gulch and Crevice Mountain contain both private lands and public lands. A proposal by Lucky Minerals currently before the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) seeks authorization to explore for gold on approximately 130 acres of privately owned mine claims. This private-lands exploration is not affected by the proposed withdrawal. MDEQ is accepting public comments
on that proposal through December 12.
There is also a proposal for mineral exploration on private lands on Crevice Mountain. That exploration would cause up to 21-acres of surface disturbance. On September 1, 2016, MDEQ notified
the Crevice Mining Group of significant deficiencies in its mine exploration application that must be remedied before MDEQ will take any action to authorize the exploration.
In the case of both mines, exploration on private lands represents a small fraction of the total land area that the companies plan to mine. For example, Lucky Minerals has claimed that it has leases and option agreements on mining claims in Emigrant Gulch totaling 2,560 acres — much of which is public land. While the proposed mineral withdrawal does not reach private lands and the companies’ current exploration proposals, withdrawing very significant public land area from future mining is essential to preventing the development of large-scale mines.
How does the withdrawal affect existing mining claims?
Mining claims that existed prior to the date of proposed withdrawal can be mined only if the claim holder can demonstrate that the claims were “valid” on the date of withdrawal and comply with the laws of the United States, including the 1872 Mining Law.
A “valid” mining claim is one that’s been subject to a formal process to determine if there’s been a “discovery of a valuable mineral deposit” and if the claim meets all other requirements of the law. For a more complete description of what constitutes a valid mining claim read BLM’s discussion
of “valid and existing rights determinations.”
When is a valid existing rights determination required in a withdrawn area?
Determining a mining claim’s validity is a complicated process that can take years. However, a validity determination is only required when an individual or mining company with existing mining claims submits a plan of operations to conduct mining activities in a withdrawn area.
Will there be an opportunity for members of the public to voice their opinion on the withdrawal?
Yes! The U.S. Forest Service and BLM held their first public meeting on the withdrawal proposal on January 8, 2017. Then, during the two-year pause (segregation period), the U.S. Forest Service and BLM will begin preparing the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or a draft Environmental Assessment (EA) to evaluate the environmental impact of the withdrawal. The public will be able to comment and provide information to the agencies that will inform the Secretary of the Interior’s final decision.
On April 25, 2017, U.S. Senator Jon Tester introduced legislation to protect more than 30,000 acres of public land bordering Yellowstone National Park. The legislation does not affect any recreational use of the land including hunting or fishing. Read details.