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How A Mega-Mine And A 'Law Without A Brain' Were Defeated On Yellowstone's Back Door

A quarter century after a controversial gold mine was stopped thanks to presidential intervention, one of the green Davids who battled a powerful Canadian giant reflects on the longshot victory

Henderson Mountain already bore the scars and legacy of historic, abandoned hardrock mining. Had the New World Mine moved forward, this area, which today is home to grizzlies, moose, wolverines, elk, bighorn sheep and has streams feeding some of Greater Yellowstone's fisheries, would have been turned into an industrial zone with a massive tailings pit of toxic detritus. Instead, it's been cleaned up as a result of the mining fight. Photo courtesy US Forest Service
Henderson Mountain already bore the scars and legacy of historic, abandoned hardrock mining. Had the New World Mine moved forward, this area, which today is home to grizzlies, moose, wolverines, elk, bighorn sheep and has streams feeding some of Greater Yellowstone's fisheries, would have been turned into an industrial zone with a massive tailings pit of toxic detritus. Instead, it's been cleaned up as a result of the mining fight. Photo courtesy US Forest Service

by Todd Wilkinson

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds,” America’s forerunning ecologist Aldo Leopold observed. “Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

Of course, there is a paradox relating to Leopold’s lament: places that were barely saved thanks to the intervention of concerned citizens—places that seem serene, majestic, and otherwise protected—often are taken for granted by the public.

In nearly every corner of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, longtime conservationist Mike Clark says, there are haunting examples of near misses—reminders where proposed natural resource extraction plans never came to fruition, but easily could have if political winds had blown in a different direction. Only the environmental advocates who fought against them realize how close they were to being lost.

One of the haunting reminders was the proposed New World Mine where American miners and then a Canadian hardrock mineral giant wanted to dig for gold, silver and copper, moving not only massive amounts of earth but storing the waste in a toxic tailings impoundment several stories deep and as big as a football field in a drainage prone to flooding from snowmelt and earthquakes. 

That it would have happened just beyond the northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park near the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, essentially bringing modern industrial impacts to a wild, wildlife-rich corner of Greater Yellowstone, made it a controversial battle for the ages. It pitted a David, in the form of conservationists being rallied together by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, against a corporate Goliath claiming there was $500 million of gold there for the taking with plenty of financial resources and political connections on Capitol Hill.

The expression,“Yellowstone is worth more than gold" as minted first in the New World battle royale, though a young backcountry skier venturing onto the slopes of Henderson Mountain may not realize that only citizen courage prevented a potential disaster there; and as they pass Fischer Creek, they probably cannot appreciate that part of this stream for many decades ran neon orange because of abandoned mines there previously.

A quarter century ago this summer, New World was only halted because of intervention by the President of the United States who touted the slogan above. Clark, then the newly-arrived executive director of GYC, found himself in the fight of his career, which is impressive given that he had spent decades fighting coal companies who removed entire mountains in Appalachia. 
An illustration showing what the proposed New World tailings pond would have generally looked like in the drainage where it would have been located—a drainage where melting snowpack and rain pushes through lots of water and saturated the ground in an area prone of earthquakes. Had a breach of the tailing impoundment occurred, the fear was it would send pollution into streams leading to the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone River. Meanwhile, old mining wastes on nearby Henderson Mountain posed a potential risk of reaching the Lamar River in Yellowstone. Photo courtesy Mike Clark/MSU Library Archives Special Collection
An illustration showing what the proposed New World tailings pond would have generally looked like in the drainage where it would have been located—a drainage where melting snowpack and rain pushes through lots of water and saturated the ground in an area prone of earthquakes. Had a breach of the tailing impoundment occurred, the fear was it would send pollution into streams leading to the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone River. Meanwhile, old mining wastes on nearby Henderson Mountain posed a potential risk of reaching the Lamar River in Yellowstone. Photo courtesy Mike Clark/MSU Library Archives Special Collection
While New World was controversial all by itself, what caused a collision course between Yellowstone and the powerful mining industry, between those defending Yellowstone and others willing to gamble with park’s ecological well-being, was a law ironically enacted by US President and former Union Army General Ulysses S Grant the same year that his pen stroke created Yellowstone.

The General Mining Law of 1872 was a relic from another time, when unbound natural resource extraction gave citizens the right to lay claim to minerals on public lands and simultaneously allowed land management agencies little resource in halting a proposal outright—even if it was situated on the edge of the most famous national park in the world. Another stinging flaw was that it required those miners, who could privatize public lands through a process known as patenting and fork over just $5 or less an acre to do it, were required to pay no royalties to the US Treasury. 

Over the last 149 years, billions upon billions of profits have been realized without royalties being paid and, in many cases, the public has had to foot the bill for costly cleanups, some that will need to happen indefinitely.

Had New World moved forward, with digging slated for an old mining zone with unstable slopes, water running through, seismic activity, and headwater streams coursing into or near Yellowstone Park there would have forever loomed concern about what could go wrong. Fears focused on waters feeding the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone on one side of Cooke City and the headwaters to Yellowstone Park’s storied Lamar River on the other. The Lamar is also an important tributary to the Yellowstone River.

The Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone was a stream that geologists said would be put at risk if the mine's tailings impoundment were to fail. Photo courtesy Bureau of Land Management
The Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone was a stream that geologists said would be put at risk if the mine's tailings impoundment were to fail. Photo courtesy Bureau of Land Management
For those who downplay the menace of permanent impacts, all one needs to do is go to the Butte, where the mother of all mining superfund sites is located or visit the Pegasus Gold Mine in the Little Rocky Mountains of Montana where an environmental mess was left behind following the Canadian mining company, Pegasus, declaring bankruptcy and leaving the burden of clean up for cyanide heap leaching to Montana citizens. In fact, according to the Mineral Policy Center, there are over 12,000 miles of streams in the Rockies impacted by abandoned mines, some too contaminated to support fish and too toxic for humans to drink.

Some 25 years ago this month a large crowd gathered in a Yellowstone meadow not far from Silver Gate, Montana. Clark and others awaited the arrival by President Clinton, flying in on a helicopter from Jackson Hole where he was vacationing, to mark the signing of a historic agreement. The following is a Mountain Journal conversation with Clark as he reflects on a controversy that could have gone either way, with an outcome that twisted on a few pivotal circumstances and a network of citizens, some who risked their personal safety to oppose the project.
Postive outcome after a few nail-biting years: In August 1996, a momentous agreement was announced that stopped the threat of the New World Mine being built on the doorstep to Yellowstone. Taking part in the signing, witnessed by a few hundred people who looked on, were Mike Clark an next to him, left to right,: President Bill Clinton, Yellowstone Superintendent Mike Finley, Katie McGinty, director of The White House Office on Environmental Quality, and Ian Bayer, CEO of Canadian mining company, Hemlo Gold that owned the mine through corporate giant, Noranda. Photo courtesy Mike Clark/MSU Library Special Collections
Postive outcome after a few nail-biting years: In August 1996, a momentous agreement was announced that stopped the threat of the New World Mine being built on the doorstep to Yellowstone. Taking part in the signing, witnessed by a few hundred people who looked on, were Mike Clark an next to him, left to right,: President Bill Clinton, Yellowstone Superintendent Mike Finley, Katie McGinty, director of The White House Office on Environmental Quality, and Ian Bayer, CEO of Canadian mining company, Hemlo Gold that owned the mine through corporate giant, Noranda. Photo courtesy Mike Clark/MSU Library Special Collections

TODD WILKINSON: Let's take readers back. You were just coming on board as leader of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and there were rumblings behind the scenes of a new mine proposed for New World Gulch. Many didn't realize where it might be leading but you did.  What were the things about the nascent plan that left you concerned and prompted you to ring an alarm bell with your staff and allies that a major battle was in the works?

MIKE CLARK: I became involved when my youngest brother, David Tatham, told me first about the New World Mine proposal in 1994 after he returned from a trip to Fisher Creek near Cooke City. For about a decade he would go to the area with high school classmates from his home in western North Carolina.  He and three high school friends would load up a flatbed farm truck with two ATVs and they would drive non-stop for two days and1900 miles to arrive at Fisher Creek and then spend ten days rambling through the national forests and visiting Yellowstone Park. 

After their vacation, they would drive non-stop back to our ancestral home in the Pisgah National Forest and only two miles from the Shining Rock Wilderness Area, the largest and most popular wilderness in the southeastern United States. They knew wild country at home. Still, they treasured the area around Cooke City as their Nirvana and they sensed big trouble.  

TW: And what did your brother say to you? 

CLARK: David asked me to help stop the proposed mine because it would destroy the Fisher Creek Valley, which leads to the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone. There were abandoned mining issues but the New World plan would have dwarfed the scale of intensive land disturbance. Living in Washington, DC, I knew nothing of the mine proposal. After researching the situation, I agreed with him.  A few months later two old friends from Montana, Albert Wells and Arnie Silverman, asked me to apply for the job of executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. They both served on the GYC board. I was hired a few weeks later and moved to Bozeman.  My task was very clear, to continue to build GYC into a powerful regional force, and, above all else, to stop the New World Mine.

TW: Set up the scene for what awaited you in Bozeman?

CLARK: Upon arrival in 1994, I found that my predecessor who had led GYC, Ed Lewis, created a highly viable set of strategies including an alliance of local and national groups who had set up key strategic teams. They included a media team to inform the media and the public about dangers to Yellowstone. There was a technical and science team to hold the company and state and federal agencies to a high standard in issuing permits. And a grassroots team to ensure that local voices would be heard, 4) There was also a legal team led by the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, later renamed EarthJustice. Lastly, there was a fundraising arm to ensure that adequate monies were available to fund all these activities.   

I then helped to implement these efforts until we obtained a clear victory. In doing so my previous work on coal mining issues in Appalachia and my years of running an environmental lobby in Washington, D.C. proved to be very helpful.  

TW: I want to set the context so that readers understand. The General Mining Law of 1872, described by Phil Hocker as "the law without a brain," more or less gave the Forest Service carte blanch to green light the project and the state Department of Environmental Quality seemed on board too. Of all the conservation issues you've taken on in your 50 year career, where does New World rank?

CLARK: Over a 53-year period I have led nine different non-profit organizations as the executive director  and served on 25 non-profit boards.  All were advocacy groups seeking solutions to complex and often controversial issues, including civil rights and racism, anti-poverty efforts, and environmental causes. There have been few victories.  The New World Battle was one of the few clear victories, so it is a favorite story. 

TW: The fight was about more than the mine itself, right?

CLARK: The Yellowstone mining battle centered around the Hard Rock Mining Law, created the same year that Yellowstone was set aside as the nation’s first national park.  Ironically, our victory in stopping the mine did not lead to reform of the 1872 Mining Law—reform that is still needed today. I have a lot of regrets about not reforming this give-away-law because it has created so many disasters in the western United States.  

TW: I remember in the early 1990s as the mine moving forward being viewed by many, albeit with horror, as a fait accompli. Stopping it appeared to be a longshot and environmentalists were a clear underdog. At what point did you believe and realize you might prevail?

CLARK: From the time I first heard of the mine proposal, I was convinced that the American public would oppose the mine if it posed a threat to Yellowstone. At the same time, I consulted with conservationist Don Bachman. He had been hired by GYC to work specifically on mining issues and he was among the first to recognize the huge implications that mining approval could have. And the way things were lining up in the beginning, it appeared administrative forces were arrayed against halting it outright and searching for ways to get it permitted. Upon taking the executive director job at GYC, I knew that another important task was to educate the press and then the American public as the first step in elevating the profile of the threat and gaining political support.
On the flanks of Henderson Mountain, some creeks and seeps flowing off of abandoned mine sites flowed orange with acid mine drainage,  revealing the legacy of earth disturbance combining sulfide-rich ore bodies with water and air.  What Noranda proposed in terms of ore processes would have dwarfed what had happened before. Photo courtesy US Forest Service
On the flanks of Henderson Mountain, some creeks and seeps flowing off of abandoned mine sites flowed orange with acid mine drainage, revealing the legacy of earth disturbance combining sulfide-rich ore bodies with water and air. What Noranda proposed in terms of ore processes would have dwarfed what had happened before. Photo courtesy US Forest Service

TW: What did Don Bachman say to you?

CLARK: We realized early on that the 1872 Hard Rock Mining Law forced the Forest Service to approve a mine on its lands. And, very likely, Congress would not intervene.  We had to find a way to engage the President in an effort to override the law. Mike Finley, who had come on board as Yellowstone superintendent in 1994, and I shared ideas and tactics frequently. Finley got in touch with Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt who was supportive of our opposition. We knew that if we could engage President Clinton in the mine battle while he was running for his second term, the likelihood was high that he would intervene and stop the proposal mine.

TW: Water concerns were central, given the mine’s location. What else is worth mentioning?

CLARK: The US Environmental Protection Agency and US Army Corps of Engineers were being asked to approve the destruction of 56 acres of high-elevation wetlands which meant water was flowing through everywhere. Gravity could have brought any contamination into both surface streams and the aquifer.

TW: That a President would come to the defense of Yellowstone is a big deal. Still, It was an uphill battle. What changed?

CLARK: I first realized we would win the campaign when President Clinton met with environmental leaders in August 1995 at the Buffalo Ranch in Lamar Valley.  He announced that he was imposing a short-term moratorium on further mining claims in the New World Mining District. But the moratorium had an expiration date.  Mike Finley and I knew that he would not have imposed the moratorium in the middle of a presidential campaign if he did not intend to find a way to halt the mine. But nothing is ever certain.

TW: There was a lot of backroom strategy involved that the public today may not remember or be aware of

The fight to stop New World was waged as a national campaign, appealing to Americans wanting to defend their first national park.
The fight to stop New World was waged as a national campaign, appealing to Americans wanting to defend their first national park.
CLARK
: The battles over mines on public lands are always contentious and often controversial. The process pits mine operators against public advocates and the exchanges often become quite heated. I have always believed that in such campaigns it is important to not demonize opponents for one primary reason: at some point you hope to negotiate a deal that works for both sides.  People tend to remember when they have been insulted in public. The legacy of bitter exchanges prevents the trust that is necessary for both sides to reach an exit strategy.  

TW: Eventually you made a trip to Toronto to meet with corporate executives from Noranda. What were those meetings like? Can you set the context?

CLARK: During the New World Mine battle we had some heated exchanges with Noranda mining executives, but again we tried consciously to keep the rhetoric toned down. Not an easy task when environmentalists see themselves as defending Mother Earth and not all are on the same page. 

TW: You employed some tactics that, especially when viewed in hindsight, were pivotal.

CLARK: I knew that there was little chance of useful negotiations with the mine operators on the ground who were directly trying to obtain permits or to find investors. Their job was to open the mine and they had little reason to talk with us. We had to find a way to reach the key decision-makers at Noranda. We began an outreach to those who played a role in providing the financial capital– to the people who had invested in the mine plans or ones who would directly be financially affected by a successful mine.  

Eventually, we found a back door— a means of communicating through relatives to the two brothers, Edward and Peter Bronfman, who owned controlling interest of Noranda, the second largest company on the Toronto Stock Exchange. They opened the door.

TW: What gave you leverage?

CLARK: Two key events let to successful talks. The first was a major victory by the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (later named Earthjustice).  Under the leadership of SCLDF Regional Director Doug Honnold and his associate Susan Daggett, the suit penetrated to the heart of  corporate leadership of Noranda. The arguments forced Noranda to ultimately surrender.  The  lawsuit charged that Noranda had illegally moved rocks and materials through a stream at the mine site without having proper permits – a violation of the federal Clean Water Act. 

TW: What were the implications for the executives?

CLARK:  A federal judge determined that the violations were serious and that Noranda was directly liable for the operations carried out by its mining arms. Noranda was exposed to fines and fees amounting to millions of dollars.

TW: You mentioned there were a couple of things.

CLARK: The second event, of course, was President Clinton sending public signals that he had serious doubts about permitting a mine adjacent to Yellowstone National Park.  His first step was to impose a moratorium or freeze on any new mining claims within the New World Mining District.  When Noranda sought to circumvent the moratorium before it became effective by filing 26 new claims, Clinton was infuriated and directed his staff to look for ways to stop the proposed mine.   
Among the influential Western allies was then Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan, a close friend of President Clinton who appointed Sullivan to serve as US Ambassador to Ireland. Sullivan, a Democrat, sided with Yellowstone's protection while members of Wyoming's Congressional Delegation, all Republicans,  thought the mine should proceed.
Among the influential Western allies was then Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan, a close friend of President Clinton who appointed Sullivan to serve as US Ambassador to Ireland. Sullivan, a Democrat, sided with Yellowstone's protection while members of Wyoming's Congressional Delegation, all Republicans, thought the mine should proceed.
TW: What was his recourse?

CLARK: We told The White House staff that we were talking with top Noranda leadership about halting the mine.  White House staff encouraged us to meet with Noranda and to communicate that the Clinton Administration was willing to explore ways to buy-out the mine assets. 

Through our backdoor access we arranged a top-level meeting with Noranda officials at their Toronto headquarters.  Simultaneously, we told Noranda officials that we were willing to help them find a positive way for them to exit the mine proposal and not lose money in the process.  The stage was set for a crucial meeting.

TW: And then what happened?

CLARK: GYC sent four people to the meeting; all had been involved in the mine campaign.  Dwight Minton was the Chair of Church and Dwight, the owner of the Arm and Hammer Baking Soda Brand  (the largest trona miner in Wyoming) and the owner of the Elkhorn Dude Ranch in the Gallatin Canyon.  Albert Wells was also a GYC board member and an investor in many business ventures across the US and abroad.  He also personally knew some of the Noranda leaders.  Ed Spencer was a highly respected businessman from Minneapolis and  his family owned the first ranch on the Clark’s Fork River in Wyoming, downstream from the proposed mine,  He served as chair of the Ford Foundation and the Mayo Clinic and was the former CEO of the Honeywell Corporation,  As GYC’s executive director, I also attended.

TW: Sounds like you had some influential firepower.  

CLARK: This was to be a meeting of businessmen talking shop. The strategy worked and was built on the trust that had been generated through our backdoor conversations.  After a full day of negotiations, Noranda asked GYC to facilitate meetings with The White House to see if a deal could be arranged to buy out the company’s assets in the New World Mine District.  We immediately contacted The White House and began a process that lasted for eight months until Noranda agreed to stop the mine proposal and sell its New World assets to the federal government.

TW: And it helps when you have a President as your ace in the hole?

CLARK: Once Noranda indicated they would pull out, we had to find a way for a deal to happen with the feds.  We knew that President  Clinton was key;  he had to be willing to over-rule the 1872 mine approval process by buying out the company.   He directed Vice President Al Gore to convene a Cabinet-level task force to complete the deal. 

Clinton’s Council for Environmental Quality, an arm of the White House, was essential.  Katie McGinty, the chair of CEQ, proved to be our most powerful and effective leader.   She had served as Chief of Staff for Al Gore when he was a US Senator.  She had the trust of both Clinton and Gore.  Her Associate Director, Ray Clark, no family relation to me, was put in charge of the negotiations.   

TW: Tell us about those maneuverings.

CLARK: Over eight months Ray Clark directed and whipped forward hundreds of meetings of career public officials in agencies including Dept of Justice, EPA, Agriculture, Forest Service, GSA, and Interior. Without the enormous and constant presence of McGinty and Clark the deal to buy-out the mine would have failed.  It took a President to stop the mine – and it took dedicated  White House staff to create an out-of-the-box solution that worked.  Doug Honnold’s brilliant SCLDF lawsuit boxed in Noranda and gave us leverage to complete the deal.
"Victories such as the one at New World occurred because conservation groups built a grassroots campaign that could not be ignored.  I call the community that emerged 'The Yellowstone Nation' because I think there now is a permanent force of people who can be called upon when needed to protect the park and ecosystem. In effect, we built a sheath of protection that encompasses the lands we call Greater Yellowstone."  —Mike Clark
TW: Those were the doings at the highest levels but you’ve always spoken in admiration of citizens on the ground.

CLARK: Opposing the mine wasn’t popular among some people in Cooke City. There is a long list of people I would mention, including GYC board members who normally did not identify as being activists but joined the fray and were steadfast. Again, in those days, Cooke City could be a rough and tumble place. Ralph and Sue Glidden, who ran a store in Cooke City and Jim and Heidi Barrett, who had a cabin there, were unwavering supporters of what we were trying to do and their courage inspired others.

TW: As with a lot of mines proponents touted jobs that would be created but the number and duration of the employment wasn't all that large, certainly not in comparison to today's engine of ecotourism. While Republicans from the Congressional delegations in the three states surrounding Yellowstone were largely pro-mine, Gov. Mike Sullivan of Wyoming ended up opposing it, and was another key contact who had the ear of the President. Who were some others?

CLARKUS Sen. Max Baucus and Congressman Pat Williams of Montana were crucial allies as we moved the deal through Congress to permanently remove the 25,000-acre Mew World Mining District from further mining.  Brian Kuehl, who worked as an intern on the New World campaign, became GYC’s legal counsel and then worked as a key congressional aide to Baucus.  He crafted much of the vital language for permanent protection of the ore body.

TW: One of the upshots of the New World battle is that, yes, the mine was stopped yet another major victory, less heralded, is that it resulted in clean-up of an old, abandoned mining district. In other words, the campaign not only prevented a new potential environmental disaster but it yielded a net gain for an important corner of the GYE. What are your thoughts about not only holding the line in safeguarding wild country that remains and, where possible, employing restoration to bring back into ecological function places that have been earlier degraded?

CLARK:  As a result of the agreement to stop the mine, we found $22.5 million  to clean up the historic mining  pollution that had occurred on properties owned by Noranda.  The New World Mining District now contains the most comprehensive high- altitude restoration of hard rock mining lands in the Northern  Rockies.

TW: Riff a little on the value of grassroots campaigns?

CLARK: Victories such as the one at New World occurred because conservation groups built a grassroots campaign that could not be ignored.  I call the community that emerged “The Yellowstone Nation” because I think there now is a permanent force of people who can be called upon when needed to protect the park and ecosystem. In effect, we built a sheath of protection that encompasses the lands we call Greater Yellowstone. 

But these political abilities have to be maintained through constant scrutiny and advocacy.  The forces working to destroy the integrity of Greater Yellowstone keep shifting and taking new forms.  The challenges and the threats do not go away. We have moved from industrial threats caused by mining and logging into more complex threats that are harder to block or to counter – the pressures caused by “loving Yellowstone Ecosystem to death” from too many demands by our growing population and the building industrial recreation economy.  

TW:  It should be noted that two water protection groups, American Rivers and Trout Unlimited mobilized their members, too. You also alluded to the important role of the media earlier. In fact, Robert Semple, Jr, senior editorial writer for The New York Times, was in touch with your communications director Bob Ekey. Semple went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for a string of strong opinion pieces on New World, which sent a message that the whole nation was watching. 

CLARK: Semple wielded a mighty pen.

It's all connected: New World would have happened just to the northwest of Cooke City. Another issue was disturbing old toxic tailings around Henderson Mountain and Miller Creek. Miller Creek is linked to Soda Butte Creek, a tributary to the Lamar.
It's all connected: New World would have happened just to the northwest of Cooke City. Another issue was disturbing old toxic tailings around Henderson Mountain and Miller Creek. Miller Creek is linked to Soda Butte Creek, a tributary to the Lamar.
TW
: Semple and The Times scrutinized the proposed mining proposal and even enlisted independent experts to analyze it. In one of the editorials, the newspaper wrote: “After listening patiently to the company's safety pitch, this page is convinced that the proposed New World Mine is a disaster-in-waiting that could ruin one of America's leading ecosystems. Reputable geologists say the company's proposed reservoir for storing buried liquid wastes in perpetuity is bound to crack someday, given the region's weather patterns and history of earthquakes. That would send tons of toxic material directly into the irreplaceable Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone River. Meanwhile, the mining operations would stir up underground wastes that would then seep into Yellowstone National Park itself.”

CLARK: The media did and still does play a vital role in letting the public know what the science says on issues.

TW: Your partner in life, Barbara Rusmore, besides being a landscape painter, is someone who has worked professionally in helping non-profit boards and staff improve their decision-making. Some of these groups use collaboration and consensus building in trying to arrive at a compromise position. But this was a case of either the mine gets built or it doesn’t. What are the limitations of consensus-building when dealing with a threats like the New World Mine, or the controversial Pebble Mine in Alaska or even some growth-related issues that are rapidly degrading the ecological integrity of Greater Yellowstone?

CLARK: Some people like to talk about using consensus and collaboration as two concepts that can be applied to public policy situations. Mining battles don’t work that way.  Noranda wanted to build a mine in an area between a beloved national park and one of the largest wilderness areas in the Lower 48.  Opponents believed the mine would harm Yellowstone and wild country.  No consensus was possible and collaboration only happens when two or more parties think they have something to gain from working together.

Sadly, and I hate to say this, but Bozeman, Big Sky and Jackson [Wyoming] are functioning like cancer cells and undercutting the capacity and resilience of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem because of their population growth and support of industrial tourism.
"As I once told Ian Bayer, the CEO of Hemlo Gold (affiliated with Noranda], 'We will fight you for every mile of that road.'  He was not pleased by the idea.  Thankfully, we did not need to resort to that strategy, but I think thousands of citizens might have stepped forward to block the mine trucks, including a lot of very conservative landowners and residents of this region."  —Mike Clark
TW: It’s been said that the most effective forms of conservation are those that create a new reality that the public can rally behind and the politics will follow.

CLARK: The ten years of conflict and controversy created a space for political leaders to step in and stop the mine. This did not happen because of collaboration and compromise.  It happened because we built a movement of peoples who were determined to stop the mine. Clinton used this movement for his own purposes to help his presidential campaign by buying out the mine.  Both he and the people who love Yellowstone benefited. Future generations can still enjoy the eastern edge of Yellowstone unimpeded by mining wastes.  

TW: Looking back, what remains inspiring to you? One of the ironies you’ve mentioned before is how the Canadian mining executives saw the power and importance of Yellowstone.

CLARK: The effort was full of examples of fine leadership.  The first example, for me, was the brilliant strategic wisdom of Doug Honnold of SCLDF. The second was the principled leadership of Ian Bayer, the CEO of Hemlo Gold Company that owned the mine through the Noranda company. Bayer was a man who kept every promise he made to me, even when the decision hurt his plans. Alan Kirk, the highly respected geologist based in Bozeman who discovered the gold ore bodies, became a key expert in cleaning up the historic mining wastes after we completed the deal and started major efforts to restore the area.  Mary Beth Marks, the Forest Service geologist who over saw the restoration efforts to heal the scars of historic mining, did a superb job.  In a time when our society seems divided by ideology and prejudice, these professionals carried out their duties under extreme pressure and the public benefited. 

TW: Often, in stories like these, we focus on all the things that went right. But what were some of the areas you would improve upon or even tactical mistakes you made that you learned from

CLARK: My largest regret centers around the 1872 Hard Rock Mining Law.   Essentially, it remains unchanged and it continues to undercut the ability of agencies to manage public lands in a manner that is ecologically healthy.  New World Mine is one example.  The Pebble mine in Alaska is another. The Cabinet Mountains mine proposal is another. 
"Crown Butte," a landscape painting by Barbara Rusmore. Anyone who visits the vicinity around Crown Butte, Henderson Mountain and the drainage where the New World Mine would have been constructed might not be aware of the toxic legacy of historic mining or the threat of new mining that loomed large. Not only was a mine fought off, but reclamation has resulted in re-wilding near Yellowstone and the Absaroka-Beartooth-Beartooth Wilderness.
"Crown Butte," a landscape painting by Barbara Rusmore. Anyone who visits the vicinity around Crown Butte, Henderson Mountain and the drainage where the New World Mine would have been constructed might not be aware of the toxic legacy of historic mining or the threat of new mining that loomed large. Not only was a mine fought off, but reclamation has resulted in re-wilding near Yellowstone and the Absaroka-Beartooth-Beartooth Wilderness.
TW: You have said that even if one is a fiscal conservative they ought to care.

CLARK: Earthworks, a national mine law reform group, estimates that the 1872 Hard Rock  Mining Law has allowed companies to obtain over $300 billion in federal assets. The resulting pollution is a legacy that haunts thousands of communities.  These mines continue to bleed poison and pollution. 

We spent several million dollars to stop the New World Mine. Most communities do not have the ability to raise these kinds of funds or to carry on campaigns that could last decades.  If it takes the direct intervention of a President to stop a mine proposal, and it is not in the power of permitting agencies to do it, then the governing laws need to be changed to more comprehensively protect our public lands. 

TW: What are some important take-home lessons?

CLARK: My second regret about the New World Mine Battle is that we ended it before the American public in the Western states could experience a full-scale non-violent, direct action campaign to defend a national park.  During the last year of the New World campaign I had begun to reach out to groups and leaders who had the ability to stop Noranda’s capacity to move its ore to a processing facility or to a repository for mining waste.  If permitted , Noranda would have moved hundreds of large trucks weekly 60 miles over steep terrain from the mine site near Cooke City to areas near Cody. 

As I once told Ian Bayer, the CEO of Hemlo Gold, “We will fight you for every mile of that road.”  He was not pleased by the idea.  Thankfully, we did not need to resort to that strategy, but I think thousands of citizens might have stepped forward to block the mine trucks, including a lot of very conservative landowners and residents of this region.  






Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. He's been a journalist for 35 years and writes for publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics ranging from scientific whistleblowers to Ted Turner and the story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen. For more information on Wilkinson, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
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