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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Gold mine near Yellowstone purchased to avoid development

Scott Christensen of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition explores the remains of an old mine works on Crevice Mountain.  (Brett French/ Billings Gazette)
By Brett French Billings Gazette

GARDINER, Mont. – Land just north of Yellowstone National Park will not be mined for gold after the Greater Yellowstone Coalition hit its fundraising goal of $6.25 million to purchase 1,368 acres of mineral rights, leases and claims.

The Bozeman-based environmental group’s deadline to raise the money was Sunday. On Sept. 25, GYC’s executive director Scott Christensen signed the paperwork in a Livingston office, ensuring the land purchase from Crevice Mining Group LLC. The deal includes mining claims on lands where Crevice didn’t own the property, called a split estate.

“The goal of this whole thing was to gain a majority of the mineral estate,” Christensen said, but the buy also includes a water right and proprietary data Crevice Mining Group had regarding the region.

If all goes to plan, the GYC will sell its newly acquired holdings to the Custer Gallatin National Forest in a couple of years. Mining on public lands adjacent to Yellowstone was banned in 2019. Then-President Donald Trump signed the Yellowstone Protection Act permanently withdrawing mineral rights from 30,000 acres in the region, which includes a portion of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Just before the bill was inked, Crevice Mining Group staked 56 claims on the mountainside.

The GYC will notify the Bureau of Land Management to extinguish those mining claims.

“The truth is, the work is never done, and while I am grateful that this next chapter is closing, we still have a lot of work to do to protect this ecosystem from many new threats – climate change, explosive wealth inequality, dwindling open space, wildlife connectivity and more,” said Michelle Uberuaga Zanoni, of the Park County Environmental Council.

Scenic spot

The sprint to the fundraising finish line left Christensen exuberant but exhausted.

“In the last 18 months, 90% of my time has been dedicated to fundraising,” he said during a walk into the area, about 3,000 feet in elevation above the North Entrance to Yellowstone and the white waters of the Yellowstone River.

Old mine adits, rock piles and tumbled down log buildings still dot the mountainside, relics of a boom era that started in the 1870s. Now sparkling with golden aspen leaves as fall arrives, and heavy with the thick vanilla scent of pine, the area can put its mining roots to rest.

Since 2015, when Crevice Mining Group director Michael Werner first set in motion his plans to mine 300 tons of ore a day from the area, conservationists lived with “a sense of dread,” Christensen said. Coupled with a mining proposal near Chico Hot Springs, the developments prompted 400 groups and local business owners to launch a campaign with the tag line: “Yellowstone is more valuable than gold.” The Park County Environmental Council helped organize the public opposition campaign. Uberuaga Zanoni praised GYC’s work to prevent the Crevice Mine from operating.

“This is a great opportunity for us to reflect on the time and energy we all spent together fighting for this place,” she said. “It was a wonderful demonstration of community solidarity, across cultural and political divisions.”

Werner saw his company’s mining project as nothing new, noting with his small mining exemption the footprint of his proposal would have been small to begin with.

“It’s a historic mining area,” he said. “We were not going to be doing anything different than what happened up there for 100 years.”

Victory lap

Although Christensen was hiking a victory lap in late September, he quickly pointed to his board, staff, legal and mining advisors and the 1,300 donors from almost every state – and some from overseas – who contributed to the purchase as key. A few people gave five to six times.

“It’s so gratifying and rewarding to understand how many people care about Yellowstone,” he said. “People look to it as this beacon of wildness.”

Camera traps placed on the mountainside have captured images of elk and a grizzly bear sow and its two cubs ambling through the forested mountain terrain. As Christensen talked, he pointed to a grizzly paw print clearly outlined in the drying mud. Feathers dusting one part of an old road signaled where a grouse had been consumed. The mountainside’s 180-degree view offered elevated peeks into the park, down to the shimmer of the river and out across the basin to the snow-dusted Gallatin Mountains.

This beautiful region, the wild animals it supports and the water it feeds to streams is veined with values that also stretch to the economic vitality of the region, Christensen said. The community of Gardiner is reliant on tourists, a point driven home last year when historic floods cut off visitation for the summer. Roads were washed out and two park gates closed.

Even with that entrance, and the Northeast Entrance at Cooke City, shut for most of the summer, Yellowstone still hosted 3.3 million visitors who spent about $452 million in surrounding communities, according to Park Service calculations.

The loss of possible high-paying mining jobs, if Crevice Mountain had been developed, will no doubt cause heartburn for some Park County residents. Yet Gardiner already struggles with a lack of affordable employee housing and finding seasonal workers.

Cheryl Standish, who owns Crevice Mountain Lodge, which was surrounded by the mining claims, said she doesn’t think the land would have been mined even if GYC’s deal fell through, but she’s glad any threat has been removed.

“He just wanted someone to pay him so he wouldn’t mine on the edge of Yellowstone,” she said of Werner.

The Crevice Mining Group executive sees things differently. He said the timing of the buyout, 11 years after he first started considering the project, was important. Being onsite every day to oversee the work was less appealing to him now, he said. He also credited GYC’s negotiator, Joe Josephson, for sealing the deal.

“Without him, it would not have happened,” Werner said. “Other ecological groups had no vision. All they wanted to do is fight.”

He called the negotiations with Josephson “polite and professional.”

“Joe Josephson did a textbook job of negotiating the deal,” Werner said. “At the end of the day, they got it for pennies on the dollar.”

Behind the scenes

When GYC first approached Werner about buying the company’s holdings, Christensen said the asking price was $115 million.

“It’s a long, long process to get to today,” Christensen said. “It’s just this complicated morass of ownership,” some of it fractionalized as the property was handed down to descendants, and containing intricate lease language.

In 2019, GYC purchased 310 acres on Crevice Mountain, showing its ability and willingness to acquire land as well as providing the group some legal standing to be a “nuisance landowner” should mining move ahead.

Through dogged negotiations for about a year, and with experts helping to determine a more reasonable cost, the asking price eventually dropped – but not before Crevice Mining Group left the discussions several times.

“We were running out of ways to stop this thing,” Christensen said. “And I kept thinking, ‘This just cannot happen on my or our watch.’ ”

Once the final price was agreed to, GYC had only two years to come up with the funding while also ensuring there weren’t any hidden problems, like an unknown toxic waste pit. After first pitching the idea to big donors in the spring of 2022, Christensen became worried when no one immediately stepped forward.

“No one wanted to make the first gift,” he said. “That was really nerve-wracking.”

Finally, the Kendeda Fund, founded by philanthropist Diana Blank, offered $1.5 million to get things started, one of its final grants to spend down the foundation’s $1.2 billion, 30-year endowment.

“That was just a huge shot in the arm,” Christensen said.

Tim Stevens, Montana adviser for the Kandeda Fund, praised GYC’s effort in crafting the land purchase and to Crevice Mining Group for agreeing to sell.

“Rarely do we have an opportunity to help advance conservation in such a significant way,” he said.

Once Kendeda was on board, other big donors stepped in – including the Wyss Foundation, the Cornell Douglas Foundation, the Ricketts Conservation Foundation – building the fund to around $3.74 million. In May, GYC took its fundraising public.

“It still felt a long way away,” Christensen said. “There were a lot of sleepless nights.”

This summer, the Liz Claiborne & Art Ortenberg Foundation provided $1 million, and $500,000 came from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation.

GYC had sought large donations before, most recently raising $250,000 over six months to fund a new corral for Yellowstone to quarantine bison. Healthy animals are then shipped alive to tribes, circumventing past catch and kill operations. And it fought mining near the border of Yellowstone in the 1990s, when the New World Mine was proposed outside the park’s Northeast Entrance near Cooke City. So the effort to buy out Crevice Mining Group was “baked into the DNA” of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Christensen said.

“I just had this deep faith that our supporters would understand the threat and help us get there,” he said.

The total price of the purchase is more than double the group’s annual budget, and that doesn’t count the “thousands of hours” of staff time, lawyers and experts who were paid to work on the effort.

“My whole heart and soul is invested in this region,” Christensen said. “It makes it a joy somedays, but it’s also been stressful and nerve-wracking.

“It feels good to get this one done and take a breather.”