The U.S. Secretary of the Interior visited Montana Monday to announce a plan blocking mining on public lands just north of Yellowstone National Park.
Hours before the formal announcement, Secretary Sally Jewell hiked into the Emigrant Gulch, near where Interior is proposing the roughly 30,000 acre ban on new mining projects. Jewell walked with Forest Service officials and members of the press up the narrow unpaved road, where patches of snow slicked the gray rocky slopes.
"We all need minerals and I appreciate that, but the fact that there's minerals here does not mean it is appropriate to mine them. That is not necessarily the highest and best use of these landscapes," Jewell said.
Monday’s proposal does not prevent ongoing or future mining projects moving forward on already existing mining claims.
The Interior’s ban on Forest Service land would last for two years. Meanwhile the Departments of Interior and Agriculture would research whether to withdraw the land from mining for an additional 20 years.
"Congressional action would be needed if mining was to be withdrawn permanently in this region, which of course is very close to Yellowstone National Park. It is bounding wilderness areas as well, and obviously very critical habitat," Jewell said.
U.S. Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat, joined Secretary Jewell for the announcement at Chico Hot Springs Resort. About 100 people - community members, local business owners and environmental groups - showed up to the event.
Tester says responsible mineral development plays an important role in Montana’s economy, but this is one place where drilling and mining shouldn’t happen.
"And we all need to keep our eyes open. We all need to stay proactive on this to make sure that our voices are heard. And in that vein, when the next Congress starts I plan on introducing a bill that permanently withdraws these mining claims," Tester said.
Tester says he has not discussed this proposed legislation with the other members of Montana’s congressional deletion, Senator Steve Daines and Representative Ryan Zinke, both Republicans.
"They’ve gone way out to the extreme, where you can’t build anything near anybody anymore," says Shaun Dykes.
He’s vice president of Lucky Minerals, a Canadian company that has applied to explore for gold on private land in the area.
Dykes says Interior didn’t tell him about their plan. And although Interior’s mining plan applies to Forest Service land, he says it could impact the funding of his mining exploration.
"Cause what they are actually trying to do is scare the investors away. The guys who put up the money for us to explore. So they’re trying to make the fear mongering and saying ‘ah it is going to be closed off we’re going to stop all mining," Dykes said.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell says she hopes the short-term mining ban would discourage mining projects in the surrounding areas from moving forward.
Lucky Minerals Shaun Dykes says the environmental impacts of mining in the area are exaggerated.
In October, state officials with Montana's Department of Environmental Quality released a draft assessment that said Lucky Minerals proposal to explore for gold would have no significant environmental impacts.
One other company with private land exploration stakes in the area says the Interior’s announcement won’t impact their work.
A 90-day public comment period on the Interior's proposal is open now until February 20.
In the span of a week, the Obama administration has pushed several high profile land conservation efforts: blocking new oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean, and canceling dozens of energy leases in Colorado and Montana.
Those cancellations include oil and gas leases in the Badger-Two Medicine area of the Lewis and Clark National Forest.
Secretary Sally Jewell says these announcements are the result of years of work, and everything has been done through a public process.
Secretary Jewell, and the rest of the Obama administration, has about 60 days left in office.