Today, the president signed the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act into the law of the land. Included in this sweeping, ground-breaking legislation was the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act (YGPA). Now and forever, 30,370 acres of public land on the northern doorstep of Yellowstone National Park will be protected from destructive and toxic gold mining.
This bill protects jobs, clean water, public access, and wildlife migrations in and out of our nation’s first national park and the river that bears its name, Yellowstone. The YGPA was one of 63 bills cobbled together into one public lands package that flew through the Senate on a 92-8 vote on February 12th. On February 26th, the House of Representatives delivered a 363-62 tally with the YGPA as one of the headlining bills. This legislation was one of the biggest conservation public lands packages to pass Congress in a decade.
It all began in mid-2015 when two sketchy gold mining companies first proposed to explore for gold on the border of Yellowstone National Park. Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Earthjustice, and Park County Environmental Council banded together with the local community and began the fight back. People came together quickly, including citizens and landowners, ranchers and non-profits, outfitters and tech companies, as well as Republicans, Libertarians, Democrats, and Independents. They weighed the impacts, examined the trade-offs, and reached a consensus: Yellowstone is more valuable than gold.
The congregation carried their story to the halls of Washington, D.C. They spoke about their economic realities, an instinctual vision of what drives their businesses, and creating a future for their children. None of these ideals included a gold mine.
In fact, two very different administrations were unequivocal in agreeing that the gateway to Yellowstone is no place for dirty gold mines and empty promises of outsiders gambling with our future. Together, the Obama and Trump Administrations made a promise and delivered on a 20-year withdrawal from mining on more than 30,000 acres of public lands outside of Yellowstone. Let’s say it again, “Together the Obama and Trump Administrations made a promise and delivered.” Where else but around our nation’s first national park could we utter such a thing?
As GYC and our partners mobilized in 2015-16, we often buffered ourselves expecting a decade-long uphill battle. While there is still much work to do in preventing potential gold mines on the remaining in-holdings, to accomplish a 20-year administrative withdrawal and push permanent legislation through Congress in less than four years is nothing short of remarkable. If it weren’t for the consistent and forceful leadership of Senator Tester who publicly stood by the community from day one, it might have otherwise taken a miracle to get this far, this fast.
On November 21, 2016 at a ceremony at Chico Hot Springs, near one of the proposed gold mines, then-Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel announced the application for a 20-year timeout. Senator Tester was so taken by the support and energy found in that packed room of local citizens, families, and business owners that he announced then and there his intention to introduce legislation, which would become the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act. His enthusiasm to do the right thing was carried forward by Representative Ryan Zinke who would go on to become Secretary of the Interior. (Ultimately, Zinke would sign the 20-year withdrawal on October 8, 2018 at a ceremony at nearby Sage Lodge.)
In December 2017, Representative Greg Gianforte, who replaced Rep. Zinke earlier that year in May, introduced an identical bill in the House to make the ban permanent. Together, Senator Tester and Representative Gianforte navigated the YGPA through committees throughout 2018. They fended off destructive amendments and garnered support for what Senator Steve Daines acknowledged in committee to be “important legislation.”
Meanwhile, back home the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition continued to grow. Montana’s largest paper, the Billings Gazette, editorialized against these mines no less than four times. Six different public processes generated tens of thousands of comments from across the country in support of the YGPA. After narrowly missing passage twice in 2018, Senator Daines then co-sponsored the legislation on December 18 and helped push the bill through. The Act now had unprecedented bi-partisan support in both the Senate and House.
And now that it’s law, I continue to be overwhelmed with joy and gratitude for so many that helped us make this happen. First, an enormous thank you to our entire delegation and the exceptional leadership of Senator Tester to deliver on his promises to Montana and all who care about Yellowstone. Park County state legislator Alan Redfield said to me at a public meeting in Gardiner, Montana at Yellowstone’s northern entrance, “Mr. Josephson, this is one thing we can both agree on.” I responded confidently, “Well sir, if I learned one thing growing up on the Yellowstone River; if you and I sat down and talked long enough we’d find more in common than not.” Indeed, when Montanan’s roll up their sleeves and work together we can prove to the world just how great America can be when we all agree on one simple, true fact: Yellowstone is more valuable than gold.
—Joe Josephson, Senior Montana Conservation Organizer