• May 24th, 2024
  • Friday, 11:15:37 PM

Our First National Park: More Precious Than Gold

Emigrant Gulch aerial view looking east from Emigrant Peak. Lucky Minerials has mine claims on both sides of the gulch on both private and public land.

“For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.” These are the words inscribed on the Roosevelt Arch, visited by millions who pass through the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park every year. President Theodore Roosevelt stood beside the arch in 1903 and praised Yellowstone, the planet’s first national park. It would still be more than a decade before the formation of the National Park Service, but the core value of preserving and protecting stunning wildlands for universal benefit had been carved in stone.

New plans for a pair of nearby gold mines have prompted Earthjustice to team up with a coalition of citizen groups and longtime allies in the fight to protect Yellowstone. The mines would cause irreversible environmental harm to this natural wonder and fray the economic fabric of the region.

If a gold mine is developed on Crevice Mountain, just a mile outside the park boundary, as planned, vacationers pausing for a snapshot beside the historic gate on their way to Old Faithful might see heavy mining equipment and floodlights in the background. Further north, a proposed gold mine on Emigrant Peak would mar the view from the road that cuts through Paradise Valley. Travelers gazing at the majestic peak jutting up from the Absaroka Mountains—a refuge for bighorn sheep, elk, grizzly bears and other creatures—would be confronted with the destruction of an open-pit mine.

But a blemished view of the cinematic Yellowstone landscape is just one of the problems anticipated with this proposal. The Emigrant mine threatens to send acid runoff flowing into tributaries of the Yellowstone River, while nearly 100,000 tons of waste rock containing elevated levels of arsenic would be dumped near tributary headwaters. Both could impact wild trout and other species that depend upon the rushing rivers of Yellowstone for pure, freshwater habitat.

The Yellowstone gateway mines would also carve up precious habitat for endangered grizzly bears. Not only would grizzlies have to pick their way around waste rock storage areas and risk fatal encounters with humans due to road construction, but they might also be exposed to the industrial noise of mining equipment and helicopters overhead, used to haul core samples and transport people to remote drill sites. Biologists have found that this kind of noise disturbance can cause grizzlies to abandon their dens.

And wildlife, including wolverines, lynx, elk, and other species, wouldn’t be the only inhabitants impacted by the mines. Destroying natural habitat to make way for mines threatens the local community by taking a toll on the regional economy. Maintaining large swaths of connected wildlands is a proven strategy to support sustainable recreation and a healthy tourist economy. Barreling ahead with a gold mine for short-term financial gain could come at the expense of the primary driver of economic growth in the Yellowstone area: an intact landscape that attracts millions of visitors from around the globe and supports a diverse business community and highly skilled workforce.

The temptation to extract precious minerals from the mountains around Yellowstone means short-sighted mining proposals have cropped up time and again. Mining flourished in the greater Yellowstone region in the 1870s and continued all the way to the 1950s. But as the mines sat idle in the decades that followed, three watersheds in the surrounding area were stained with orange, acid-tainted water that found its way into Yellowstone National Park.

In the late 1980s, Canadian mining giant Noranda quietly bought up most of the existing mining claims from the areas that were leaching acid-tainted water. The company then unveiled plans for a massive new mine where it would spray liquid cyanide onto piles of crushed ore to extract gold. The National Park Service and local citizens were horrified, and a United Nations committee even designated Yellowstone as a “world heritage site in danger.”

Earthjustice filed suit on behalf of the Beartooth Alliance, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and other citizens’ groups, calling on Noranda to clean up the toxic runoff from the old mines it had purchased before it started on the new project. It was forced to abandon the project.

Park lovers understand that the only way to preserve the natural beauty of Yellowstone is to spring into action whenever new mining proposals start to gain momentum. That’s why Earthjustice is now working in partnership with local and national groups to defend our oldest national park against the gold mine proposals that threaten to undermine the area’s immeasurable environmental, social, cultural and economic value.

Rebecca is an Advocacy Press Secretary for Earthjustice’s Lands, Oceans and Wildlife program in San Francisco.