Environmentalists Aim to Block Gold Mine near Yellowstone – by Buying It

Photo for The Washington Post by Natalie Behring
Visitors at the Blacktail Deer Creek Trailhead in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming on May 7, 2023.

For decades, conservationists have fought against gold mining at the edge of Yellowstone National Park, fearing hard-rock extraction could fragment its wildlife habitat and pollute its waterways.

Now park lovers say they say have a permanent way to preserve this crown jewel of the national park system: buying gold rights at Yellowstone’s doorstep.

A nonprofit conservation group called the Greater Yellowstone Coalition is poised to purchase the mining rights of Crevice Mining Group LLC, a firm that has fought for years to dig on slopes overlooking the Yellowstone River near the park’s northern border in Montana.

“People want to experience Yellowstone like they do today for generations to come,” said Scott Christensen, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. The purchase, he added, would extinguish “the last real gold mining threat on the boundary of Yellowstone.”

The $6.25 million deal is meant to cement protections for the country’s first national park, which attracts more than 3 million visitors annually with its rocketing geysers and roaming bison, elk and moose.

Environmentalists often try to stop potentially polluting projects by asking the government – whether it be judges, lawmakers or bureaucrats – to step in. It’s less common for green groups to open up their wallets themselves.

“They’re the first environmentalists who came to us that had a plan versus just saying we’re going to fight you tooth and nail until you die,” Michael Werner, co-owner and managing director of Crevice Mining Group, said on his decision to sell.

But the environmental coalition faces a ticking clock: It has until Oct. 1 to raise the money to complete the sale. If it doesn’t, the mining company plans to move forward with its project.

During much of the 19th century, prospectors swung pickaxes across the Yellowstone Plateau in search of gold. (Despite the presence of precious metals, Yellowstone is named not after its gold but after its yellow sandstone.)

But Congress saw something more valuable than ore there. To preserve Yellowstone’s wildlife and “natural curiosities,” President Ulysses S. Grant signed a law in 1872 making it a national park and prohibiting mining within its boundaries.

That didn’t stop miners from looking for gold just outside its borders, compelling both Democratic and Republican administrations for years to adopt a piecemeal approach to protecting land around the park over concerns mining could pollute streams running into the park and hamper the movement of animals migrating across its boundaries.

In 1996, the Clinton administration struck a deal with a Canadian firm to stop a proposed gold mine near Yellowstone. By 2016, another pair of gold mining claims – one from Crevice and another from a company called Lucky Minerals – popped up near the park, prompting another wave of opposition.

The Obama administration responded by protecting about 30,000 acres of federally controlled land near the park’s northern entrance from new mining claims for two years. In 2018, the Trump administration extended the ban by 20 years. Soon after, Congress permanently withdrew the mineral rights on public lands near Yellowstone and the Montana Supreme Court rejected Lucky Mineral’s effort to mine.

The last claim was from Crevice, which had leased private lands unaffected by the federal mineral withdrawal.

The company agreed to sell its claim to the Greater Yellowstone Coalition after more than a year of negotiation. “GYC is going to get the Crevice ore deposit for pennies on the dollar,” said Werner, the mining executive.

“I’m a capitalist,” he added. “But I’m not unsympathetic.”

Werner remains sure his firm can mine the mountain safely. If the environmental coalition can’t pay by October, Werner will try to raise money to complete the mine.

So far, donors have given or pledged about $3.75 million of the $6.25 million that the Greater Yellowstone Coalition needs to complete the purchase. Two charities, the Kendeda Fund and the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, have provided most of that money, with respective pledges of $1.5 million and $500,000.

“We view this project as a true win-win,” said Fay Twersky, president of the Blank Family Foundation, citing the need to protect habitat and shield the Yellowstone River from pollution. Home Depot co-founder Arthur M. Blank also owns ranch land near Yellowstone.

The impact of mining can last a long time. Extraction near a mountain stream called Soda Butte Creek left a legacy of toxic waste that leached into the park for decades. Only in 2018 was the creek removed from the federal government’s list of impaired waters after extensive reclamation.

“We’ve seen the negative impacts of mining on the Yellowstone boundary in the past,” Cam Sholly, Yellowstone’s superintendent, said in a statement.

Referring to recent mining claims, he added: “Simply stated, Yellowstone National Park is recognized as one of the world’s most iconic national parks and we are concerned that the impacts from this mine could detrimentally impact park resources and values.”

The environmental coalition is confident it can raise the rest of the money in time.

“I just have to believe that there are a lot of people in this country who care deeply about Yellowstone,” Christensen said.