A copper and silver mine for northwest Montana appears one step closer to approval and this worries Mary Costello.
"We're happy to see that the Forest Service is acknowledging that there's some major data gaps and a lot of things that they did not look at in the detail that they should, but it sure seems to me like a forgone conclusion that they're going to permit this thing no matter what. That's just wrong."
Costello is executive director of "Save Our Cabinets", a Heron, Montana-based conservation group opposing mine development in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area.
She and other environmentalists say the proposed Montanore mine will cause irreparable harm to the area.
Kootenai National Forest officials are reviewing one final list of objections connected to the project.
Forest Service Region 1 Deputy Forester, David Schmid disagrees. Schmid recently concluded that once a list of 22 final objections to the mine are reviewed and clarified the project will comply with all applicable laws and the Forest Plan.
Raymond Smith is the agency's Objections Coordinator for the Northern Region.
"The [Kootenai National] Forest is going to have to do this further analysis - take a look at it, take a look at the impacts before they make a decision. Because this decision has not yet been made, it isn't a fait accompli."
Smith says there are details in the final environmental impact statement that still need clarification.
"A number of concerns were brought up about the location of the tailings impoundment site. The EIS could have been clearer as to why they chose the site they chose - that's one example."
Officials are also clarifying how much grizzly bear mitigation measures will ultimately cost.
One objector alleges the final EIS didn't properly analyze the potential effects of the proposed mine's main access road.
"Save Our Cabinets" Mary Costello says these are important questions that need clarification, but she also thinks a copper and silver mine under the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness is an altogether lousy idea. She worries the mine could harm the local grizzly bear population.
Mining operations also rely on lots of local water.
"Which is going to result in reductions in base flows and surface waters," according to Costello. "We're going to see a massive and long term de-watering of outstanding natural resource waters within the wilderness. Two of the streams that would be most impacted would be the east fork of the Bull River and Rock Creek. Those happen to be the two streams that are really key to bull trout recovery in the region."
A 2014 Fish and Wildlife Service study showed the project is not likely to harm bull trout, but the Kootenai National Forest will further study the issue. The agency also says a monitoring plan will be implemented to watch for stream flow depletions.
If the Forest Service eventually approves the Montanaore project's final environmental impact statement and the draft record of decision, that would clear the way for the Spokane-based Mines Management Inc. to begin exploration. Company President Doug Dobbs declined our request for a taped interview. But company officials recently told the Associated Press they are concerned about the possibility of lawsuits.
A coalition of conservation groups, including "Save Our Cabinets" has sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to stop the project.
"We're hoping that will result in the revocation of the biological opinion," Costello says. If the Forest Service issues a Record of Decision permitting the Montanore Mine, it's based on having that biological opinion in place."
Raymond Smith of the Forest Service says there's no set time frame for completion of the current objections analysis underway on the Kootenai National Forest.