US agency endorses plan to block new mining near Yellowstone

U.S. officials on Friday recommended approval of a plan to block new mining claims for 20 years on public lands in the towering mountains north of Yellowstone National Park.

Regional Forester Leanne Marten submitted a letter to the Bureau of Land Management endorsing the plan to withdraw 30,000 acres (12,140 hectares) in Montana’s Paradise Valley and the Gardiner Basin from new claims for gold, silver, platinum and other minerals, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Marna Daley said.

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The rocky peaks and forested stream valleys covered by the withdrawal attract skiers, hikers and other recreational users. It’s an area where grizzly bears, wolves and other wildlife roam back and forth across the Yellowstone border.

A final decision is up to the office of U.S. Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke, who said in a statement that the withdrawal could be finalized in coming weeks.

The Forest Service recommendation follows concerns among business owners, residents and local officials that proposed mining projects north of Yellowstone could damage waterways and hurt tourism, a mainstay of the local economy.

About 1.7 million people drove through that area last year, and withdrawing the land from new mining development would help protect the areas for wildlife and recreation, according to U.S. Forest Service officials.

“I’ve always said there are places where it is appropriate to mine and places where it isn’t. The Paradise Valley is one of those unique places,” Zinke said.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines said the areas covered by the withdrawal were “truly special places that deserve protection.”

The mining industry opposes putting the public land off limits. Backers of the withdrawal want it made permanent.

The withdrawal would affect public lands, not existing mining claims or exploration on private lands. It’s been in the works since 2016 under Zinke’s predecessor, former Interior Sec. Sally Jewell.

Under the proposal, government officials have estimated that 81 acres (33 hectares) would still be disturbed by mining and 4.5 miles (7 kilometers) of new roads would be built, according to a Forest Service analysis completed in March. That compares to an estimated 130 acres (53 hectares) of land disturbed by mining and 7 miles (11 kilometers) of roads over 20 years if the withdrawal were not enacted.

Legislation to withdraw the lands permanently has been introduced by both Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte.

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