“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
Ten years ago, our coalition didn’t even talk to one another. A few of us were divided by politics and ideology. Some just never had a good enough reason to be in the same room together. It took a fundamental threat to our community and way of life to bring us together, and the results have been surprising. This is our story, and it’s not finished yet.
We live in the gateway of Yellowstone National Park in the southwest corner of Montana. Several years ago, two industrial-scale gold mines were proposed in the upper stretches of the Yellowstone River in areas that are more suited for elk, fly fishing and family vacations than industrial-sized mining.
A few of us reached out to these foreign-owned mining companies because it was the neighborly thing to do. We wrote a letter asking them to reconsider plans to build mines that would negatively impact so many people and so many livelihoods. We told them our economy and our small businesses don’t run on mines; they run on Yellowstone National Park and the free-flowing river. We explained that while we aren’t anti-mining, there are more appropriate places to mine.
We could all agree that Yellowstone is more valuable than gold.
These companies were not the least bit interested in what we had to say. They responded with empty promises, downplayed the impacts and tried to fast-track their applications.
We’ve seen the stories across America of powerful corporations running roughshod over local communities and local citizens. We weren’t going to let that happen in our backyard, so we united. We turned to our neighbors and the hundreds of small businesses who depend on clean water and unspoiled public lands around the gateway to Yellowstone National Park. We founded the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, which is now made up of nearly 400 local businesses. We didn’t line up along party lines. We simply came together and called a spade a spade ― industrial scale gold mining is not appropriate here. We could all agree that Yellowstone is more valuable than gold.
In a great show of democracy, our bipartisan voice filtered all the way to the highest levels of government. Our coalition scored our first major victory when former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell issued a timeout order that temporarily prohibited new mining claims on 30,000 acres of public lands surrounding the mining proposals. Jewell’s successor, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, doubled down on Jewell’s original order. Zinke is now working to finalize the mineral withdrawal that will halt mining leases on our public lands for as long as 20 years.
This timeout, which has now been by upheld by both the Obama and Trump administrations, will protect our businesses, our jobs and our healthy economy. But it’s only temporary. We still need a permanent solution for our children, our businesses and our way of life. We don’t want to kick the can down the road and force our kids to deal with something we couldn’t finish.
Montana’s senior Senator Jon Tester (D) has responded. He asked local businesses to help shape the bill that would permanently protect approximately 30,000 acres of public lands on Yellowstone National Park’s doorstep. The bill he introduced, the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, is the solution for the concern voiced by the business coalition members who worry how acid mine drainage, loss of public lands and other impacts from large-scale mining could affect our community. The Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act honors the commitment of the business coalition to protect private property rights, including protecting valid existing mineral rights on public lands.
Protecting our economy and our community takes precedence over party lines, which is why we are also encouraged that Montana Senator Steve Daines (R) and Congressman Greg Gianforte (R) have also agreed that Yellowstone is more valuable than gold. The next step is for our entire Montana delegation to permanently protect our community from the threat of industrial-scale gold mining by passing our made-in-Montana legislation.
Two years ago, nobody could have guessed our coalition would have made such a difference and come this far. We have demonstrated that we can accomplish big things when we put aside assumptions about what is politically possible. If our Montana delegation works together on this with as much unity as our community has shown, we could have a real shot at passing legislation as soon as this year.
Our story isn’t finished yet, but we hope we can be a lesson for all Americans. Even in the most polarizing of political times, democracy can still function. We can do far more good for our country when we line up alongside communities, families, and local economies rather than either side of an aisle.
Bryan Wells, Tracy Raich and Colin Davis are the founding members of the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition.