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On Yellowstone’s Doorstep, Conservationists Want To Buy Out A Gold Mine
May 19, 2023
On Yellowstone’s Doorstep, Conservationists Want To Buy Out A Gold Mine
To halt 'major tragedy,' Greater Yellowstone Coalition needs to raise $6.25 million by October
View overlooking the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River, Blacktail Plateau and Crevice Lake in Yellowstone National Park. This photograph was taken from the edge of the proposed gold mine by the Crevice Mining Group. This is occupied grizzly bear habitat and at the heart of the renown Northern Range elk migration. Photo by William Campbell
by Joseph T. O'Connor
In Park County, just over the northern border of Yellowstone National Park near Gardiner, Montana, the latest saga in a decades-long dogfight over proposed hardrock mines at the park’s doorstep involves a rare occurrence: a nonprofit conservation organization wants to buy mineral rights from a mining company in an attempt to protect the land, waterways and wildlife adjacent to the park.
Bozeman-based conservation nonprofit Greater Yellowstone Coalition announced in mid-May it had signed an agreement to secure the mineral rights, leases and mining plans from Washington State-based Crevice Mining Group, which has proposed a gold mining operation on more than 1,300 acres of Crevice Mountain, just north of the park border and the Yellowstone River.
GYC Executive Director Scott Christensen says a gold mine on Crevice would devastate an area near Yellowstone that carries critical ecological value.
“The significance of this location can't be understated,” Christensen said. “It's square in the heart of occupied grizzly bear habitat. It's right in the middle of the Northern Range elk herd migration corridor, [and] within the Northern Range bison tolerance zone. It's home to all of the amazing tapestry of wildlife that exists in Yellowstone and throughout Greater Yellowstone.”
To close the deal, GYC will need to meet a $6.25 million price tag by October 1. Christensen says the nonprofit has raised $4 million of the goal to date, and that while it’s an uphill battle, his group is up to the task. After all, it’s not the first time GYC has fought for land over gold in the Treasure State.
For decades, environmental groups and mining companies have gone toe to toe over proposed mining operations near Yellowstone. In the 1990s, GYC and allies grappled with Canadian mining company Noranda over an area known as the New World Mining District, a 25,000-acre parcel containing what Noranda claimed held more than $500 million in gold, silver and copper some five miles from Cooke City and the northeast entrance to Yellowstone.
At that time, in 1994, Mike Clark had just started as executive director of GYC following years of work fighting coal-mining companies in Appalachia and heading the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Policy Institute, the first-ever environmental lobbying firm in the U.S.
Clark worked closely with then-superintendent of Yellowstone Mike Finley to build public awareness, an effort that prompted President Bill Clinton to visit the area and in 1996 announce that the federal government would buy out the New World Mine to prevent the mining of gold. “Yellowstone is more famous than gold,” Clinton famously declared.
“The significance of this location can't be understated. It's square in the heart of occupied grizzly bear habitat. It's right in the middle of the Northern Range elk herd migration corridor, [and] within the Northern Range bison tolerance zone. It's home to all of the amazing tapestry of wildlife that exists in Yellowstone and throughout Greater Yellowstone.” –Scott Christensen, executive director, Greater Yellowstone Coalition
The effort spearheaded by GYC is largely considered among the greatest achievements in conservation history. The formidable list of other groups that came together to fight New World included EarthJustice, the Sierra Club, Beartooth Alliance, Gallatin Wildlife Association, National Parks Conservation Association, Northern Plains Resource Council, American Rivers, Trout Unlimited, Montana Wildlife Federation, Park County Environmental Council, Wyoming Wildlife Federation, and Wyoming Outdoor Council.
“It was an easy sell to the public,” says Clark, who served GYC for two terms as its executive director from 1994-2001 and again from 2009-2013. “People were concerned and frightened and aroused. The biggest challenge was to convince federal officials that they needed to act on the threat to national park.”
The land where the New World Mine was proposed was public, but by paying cash rather than swapping land the federal government was able to circumvent what’s known as the General Mining Act of 1872, which President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law just two months after signing legislation declaring Yellowstone the nation’s first national park.
At the New World site, part of the land was brought into private ownership through the patenting provision of the 1872 hardrock mining law that allows prospectors to claim ownership if they could “prove up” on a claim by developing it. The law is one of the highly contentious—some argue Draconian—provisions of frontier-era natural resource laws that encouraged human settlement and mineral development in the West.
A trail camera image of a sow grizzly bear and her two cubs taken during the winter of 2022 on a 14-acre parcel GYC owns on Crevice Mountain adjacent to the proposed mine site. Trail camera photo courtesy William Campbell
In order to develop the mine, the Canadian firm needed land for access and enough infrastructure to sort ore from tailings, which would then be stored in a vast and controversial tailings impoundment that environmental groups and engineers said was vulnerable to failure by flooding and seismic events. Moreover, concerns were raised about potential acid drainage further polluting streams that had been contaminated by mining decades earlier. For the mine to proceed, it needed approval from the U.S. Forest Service and Montana Department of State Lands, which seemed poised to allow it to proceed despite worries that it had potentially disastrous consequences for streams draining into Yellowstone’s Lamar River or the headwaters of the Clark Fork of the Yellowstone River.
In 2015, GYC was again involved in trying to halt mining proposals after Crevice and Lucky Minerals each made gold-mining claims north of the Yellowstone border. A grassroots effort led by GYC, Earthjustice and the Park County Environmental Council prompted the Obama Administration to protect more than 30,000 acres of federally controlled land adjacent to the park from mining development for two years. Then, in 2019, the Trump administration signed into law a bill introduced by Montana Sen. Jon Tester called the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, which shielded the public land from mining development in perpetuity.
Mining proposals exist in Montana beyond Park County and are seeing similar controversy. A proposed copper mine along the banks of Sheep Creek at the headwaters of the Smith River could threaten drinking water and streamflows on the Smith, the only permitted recreation river in the state and one that historically suffers from low water levels in mid to late summer. Several conservation groups sued the Montana Department of Environmental Quality in 2020 after the DEQ cleared the way for Tintina Montana, a subsidiary of Australian-based mining company Sandfire Resources, to build the mine. The groups claim the Black Butte Project would leach sulfuric acid and produce upwards of 13 million tons of toxic metals.
Michael Werner, co-owner of Crevice Mining Group, claims his mining operation would not negatively affect the water or lands near Yellowstone National Park. I asked him if gold mining is a destructive process to local waters or the land and its ecological value. “Well, it can be, but so are garbage dumps,” he said.
One bill currently in Congress could result in protecting the Smith and other streams in Montana from mining operations built at river headwaters. The Montana Headwaters Legacy Act, another of Tester’s bills, would amend the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and aims to expand federal protections to some 377 miles of waterways across the state. The bill is an example of new legislation that could undercut portions of laws like the General Mining Act of 1872 that are currently under fire from groups trying to protect public lands and water in Montana.
Today’s Crevice proposal still operates under the 1872 mining law since the land in question is privately owned, requiring a private buyout and prompting GYC’s $6.25-million fundraising effort.
“The mining laws in our country are so antiquated and tilted toward the mining industry and the development of minerals that it's almost impossible to successfully challenge mining proposals so this is rare,” said Christensen. “We're hopefully at a point of closing the final chapter on mining near the boundary of Yellowstone.”
Aerial image of the southern portion of the proposed Crevice mine site (open meadows in the middle of the image). The northern boundary of the Yellowstone National Park runs across the middle of the photograph before the hill drops steeply into the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River. Photo by William Campbell
Michael Werner, co-owner of Crevice Mining Group, first obtained the mineral leases on Crevice Mountain in 2011. His proposal for a gold mine, which would operate for eight years should GYC not raise the necessary funding to buy him out, would pull some 300 tonnes of material from the ground per day equating to 121 ounces of concentrated gold. Werner estimates that the gold from Crevice is worth $1,900 per ounce. Using these calculations, Werner’s group would stand to make approximately $82 million in gross revenue per year before operating expenses.
“The margins on Crevice are large,” said Werner, an engineer who was chief operating officer for TVX Gold, the mining group that operated the Mineral Hill Mine in Jardine in the 1990s. “Crevice was once described as the largest gold deposit mine not developed in Montana. I think it’s fair to say that Crevice would just make a lot of money.”
But at 65 years old, Werner says he’s willing to take the buyout option should GYC raise the funds. “I'm getting old enough that I really don't want to go up and live on Crevice and make it work,” he said. “That does not mean I'm not going to do that. That means if they can come up with the money to make this 10 years worth something to me, then I'm willing to walk away. They're motivated, I'm motivated, so if it works, it works. If it doesn't, then I get on a plane and go make some money.”
Werner claims his mining operation would not negatively affect the water or lands near Yellowstone National Park. I asked him if gold mining is a destructive process to local waters or the land and its ecological value.
“Well, it can be, but so are garbage dumps,” he said. “You put garbage in landfills. Go out west of Bozeman you got a great big landfill out there.”
Clark, the former head of GYC, doesn’t see these as comparable arguments. “Gold mining inherently is an environmentally destructive process that always destroys water and water resources. The Crevice plan is adjacent to the park and would be a major tragedy if it went ahead. If it were to go in it would be a disaster.”
The federal government under the 1872 mining law has little say in the legality of mining on private land outside Yellowstone, however the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the independent and nonpartisan agency that informs Congress on best practices in government, says that while mining is important to the economy, it also “disturbs the land and creates the potential for serious public health, safety, and environmental hazards.”
Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly points to the history of mining near the park boundary and says the past should inform the present.
“Mining outside of the park, north of Yellowstone a century ago left a legacy of toxic waste severely contaminating the Soda Butte Creek, making it the most polluted stream entering Yellowstone National Park,” Sholly said in a statement. “The impacts from this mine [Crevice] have the potential to contaminate the surface and groundwater that feeds directly into the Yellowstone River thereby displacing wildlife in the park and negatively affecting the visitor experience.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Read more here about the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and former executive Director Mike Clark’s efforts to head off the New World Mine.