A Golden Earmark

By Beacon Staff

Does anyone remember the New World Mine/Crown Butte/Yellowstone Park fiasco that dragged out in the 1990s near Cooke City? Well, here’s the rest of the story.

Cooke City originated as the mining camp of Shoo Fly. In 1869, prospectors poaching on the Crow Reservation found color. The Indians duly ran them off, but the white guys retaliated by getting Congress to shamefully shrink the reservation in 1882.

The lack of a railroad, which would have had to be routed through Yellowstone Park, kept the Cooke City/New World mining district small. It nonetheless produced 65,000 ounces of gold before 1955.

In 1989, investors took a new look at the New World. The Crown Butte partners eventually plowed $39 million into prospecting an ore body that appeared to be worth $800 million in 1997.

Environmentalists and The New York Times editorial board flew into a tizzy. Because Canadian mining giant Noranda was involved, Crown Butte was hammered as foreigners bent on pillaging an American treasure. The United Nations World Heritage committee jetted in on a Clinton Administration junket, knitted their brows and declared Yellowstone a “World Heritage Site In Danger,” even though the mine site was downhill and out of sight of Yellowstone.

In 1997, while working for the pro-resource group People for the West, I was tasked with reading and analyzing the aborted Environmental Impact Statement. A so-called “failure impacts analysis” showed the mine would work if the tailings were placed on a low-slope ridge below the mine – ridge meaning dry, and low-slope meaning stable. To this day, I remain convinced that Crown Butte would have been a showcase project.

The hook? The tailings site had never been claimed, and remained public land. Interior Solicitor John D. Leshy, a former Natural Resources Defense Council lawyer, changed the rules, denying land transfers for either mill siting or tailings disposal. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt (himself fresh in the revolving door from his directorship at the League of Conservation Voters) helped Leshy twist the knife, implementing a 20-year moratorium on any more claims.

Even better, Sierra Club et al sued to make Crown Butte liable for existing mine pollution. It won, hitting Crown Butte for $25,000 a day in fines for pollution they hadn’t caused.

Crown Butte was busted. It secretly caved to the Clinton Administration, walking away with the $39 million it had wasted, along with $22.5 million to conduct remediation of the district’s historic pollution – cleanup the modern mine would have conducted anyway.

Times editorial writer Robert Semple scored a Pulitzer Prize for his editorials against the mine. The irony is Semple’s first visit to Montana occurred post-Pulitzer, when he came to Montana to be feted by environmentalists, who flew him over the site.

In return for Montana’s loss of 460 or so jobs and “about 100 million dollars” in tax revenue, then-Congressman Rick Hill wrangled title to the Otter Creek coal tracts from the Feds to the State of Montana. Twelve years later, no coal has been mined.

Completely cut off at the knees was one Margaret Reeb, a Livingston schoolteacher. The daughter of a mine manager, raised in the District, she had bought up 1,450 acres of claims over the years, which she in turn leased to Crown Butte. She was never told of Crown Butte’s dealings with the government until it was done.

Reeb eventually landed an undisclosed sum not to mine, holding on to her property until her death in 2005.

Reeb left her land to two of her nephews, and here’s the rest of the story: They sold out.

The Trust for Public Land, in cahoots with many of the enviromental groups that fought to kill the mine, lobbied Senator Max Baucus to earmark money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Now the land will go to the Forest Service.

The New York Times called this earmark, $8 million over two years, “little more than a rounding error in a $2 trillion” federal budget – yet another nice, rounding error that everyone, and everyone’s nephew, will help make up. Happy April 15.

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