Federal officials on Monday moved to block new mining claims at the doorstep of Yellowstone National Park, the latest push by the Obama administration to protect environmentally sensitive areas during the president’s final months in office.
Mining claims will be prohibited on about 30,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land near the park’s northern entrance in Montana. The prohibition will remain in effect for two years while officials gather public comment and evaluate whether to designate the area off-limits to new mining claims for an additional 20 years.
“There are good places to mine for gold, but the doorstep of Yellowstone National Park is not one of them,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement. “Today’s action helps ensure that Yellowstone’s watershed, wildlife and the tourism-based economy of local communities will not be threatened by the impact of mineral development.”
The move comes as two proposals for gold-mining exploration north of Yellowstone draw opposition from local environmentalists and business owners who argue that the projects would industrialize areas crucial to migrating wildlife and could harm tourism. The two-year prohibition issued Monday wouldn’t explicitly block the proposals, but it could hamper them.
A representative of one of those companies told the Associated Press that halting new mining claims north of Yellowstone could sink the project by prompting potential investors to take their money elsewhere. Shaun Dykes of Lucky Minerals told the AP that the reserves targeted by his company near Emigrant, Mont., hold up to 10 million ounces of gold and that mining could provide a boost to the region’s economy.
Yellowstone is among the country’s most popular national parks — with a record 4.1 million visitors last year — and one of the most majestic. Many of those visitors also are drawn to the nearby national forest, where elk, moose, bison, bighorn sheep and other wildlife migrate from winter ranges in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho to summer ranges near the heart of Yellowstone.
Government officials said Monday that the area where mineral mining could have taken place is home to some of those migration corridors.
“Taking a time-out to balance the benefits of our natural resources and recreation-based local economies against mineral extraction is a commitment we owe the American taxpayer,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. “This need is much more pressing where the potential risks to our extraordinary natural resources and the health of our rural towns are significant.”
The move marks the latest in a flurry of efforts by the Obama administration to safeguard lands and waters from the mining and oil industries.
Last week, the Interior Department announced a settlement with Devon Energy for the cancellation of leases for oil and gas drilling on lands considered sacred by the Blackfeet tribe. The exploration leases covered parts of the Badger-Two Medicine area of Lewis and Clark National Forest in northwest Montana.
Two days later, the Obama administration banned offshore drilling in the Arctic. That move is on a potential collision course with President-elect Donald Trump, who has vowed to “unleash” new energy production in the United States by rolling back restrictions on oil and gas companies.
These 11th-hour actions have angered industry representatives who argue that allowing broad exploration on public lands is key to creating jobs and bolstering the economy. Environmentalists have praised the White House’s efforts, even if the incoming Trump administration could reverse some decisions.
“These proposed mines would harm Yellowstone resources, wildlife, visitor experience and adjacent communities,” Theresa Pierno, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement Monday. “The threat of mining on the doorstep of Yellowstone is a stark reminder that we must remain vigilant in our efforts to protect Yellowstone and so many other national parks across the country.”
Chris Mooney contributed to this report.