The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly this week to pass the most significant public lands bill in over a decade. It will create 700,000 acres of new protected wilderness around the country and protect land bordering Yellowstone National Park from commercial mining.
Caroline Byrd, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, tells Here & Now's Peter O'Dowd that environmentalists have been fighting off commercial mining in the Yellowstone area for decades.
"We won because everybody knows that Yellowstone is more precious than gold."Caroline Byrd
The issue of gold mining resurfaced about four years ago, Byrd says, when environmentalists noticed a gold mining company had plans to build a giant mine in Emigrant Gulch, a valley along Emigrant Creek, which drains into the Yellowstone River.
"It's a really outstanding piece of wild country, and the thought of a giant, giant industrial gold mine on the flanks of Paradise Valley 16 miles from Yellowstone was just unthinkable, so that's when we really mobilized," she says.
Not long after that, Byrd says, her group fought off another gold mining proposal at Crevice Mountain, which is on the border of Yellowstone. "There's definitely gold" in the area, she says, but there are environmental problems associated with extracting it.
"Sadly, it's also associated with an ore body, or its chemistry is such that the gold that we have around Yellowstone is always going to have acid mine drainage," Byrd says. "It's always going to be a pollution for water. It's always going to be an industrial mess. There's no way of mining this gold without having permanent pollution."
The bill passed by the House permanently blocks commercial mining on those public lands, she says. The bill wasn't expected to have bipartisan support, but it soared through the House 363 to 62.
"In the West, public lands are our identity. We are wedded to our outdoors. They are the drivers of our economy and our lifestyles," Byrd says. "Gold mines don't mix with them."
She adds that the passage of this bill highlights the "power of community" in efforts to protect public lands.
"Had it just been the environmentalists, we wouldn't have won," Byrd says. "We won because everybody knows that Yellowstone is more precious than gold."
This segment aired on March 1, 2019.