By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
CHESTER - A proposal by a mining company to turn its mining interests in the Sweet Grass Hills into a park met with interest - some of it lukewarm - at a meeting Tuesday in Chester.
The Mount Royal Joint Venture, based in Minnesota, has proposed that the federal government provide money to the state to buy its mining interests and create a state park, preventing mining in the area. People at the meeting, held by the Liberty County Commission, generally supported creating the park but wanted more information.
The commissioners said they would schedule another meeting to let the people of Liberty County further discuss the idea, and would get back to Mount Royal.
"There are too many unanswered questions to even say 'Continue the investigation,'" said Charley Frey of Chester. "There's too much gray. We need more black and white."
Geologist Ernest Lehman, one of the partners in Mount Royal Joint Ventures, came to the meeting to present the proposal. Mount Royal has invested between $1.5 million and $2 million in prospecting the Sweet Grass Hills in the last 20 years, and found an estimated 1.75 million ounces of gold there, Lehman said.
American Indian tribes, including the Chippewa, Cree, Assiniboine and Blackfeet, consider the area sacred and have opposed the mining, as have some local residents. In 1996, the U.S. Department of the Interior put a moratorium on new mining claims on federal land in the area, and started pursuing the purchase of existing claims.
Lehman said his group has appealed the moratorium in court and expects to eventually win. He added that he thinks Initiative 137, which banned cyanide leach mining in Montana, will eventually be overturned and Mount Royal will be able to use the process to mine in the hills.
"But it's been a long, hard pull, and it's been a lot of money, mostly lawyers' fees that really don't advance anybody," he said. "It occurred to us there might be a way to resolve the issues to make a win-win situation for everybody."
Lehman said he is meeting this week with representatives of the Rocky Boy, Fort Belknap and Blackfeet Indian reservations.
Several people at the meeting had questions Lehman couldn't answer about access and use of the park.
Adrian Hawks, Phil Wardell and Lance McDowell have land bordering or near the proposed park. They asked how people could access the area, since it doesn't have easy access roads. The ranchers said they often let people cross their land to go to the area, but that they were concerned about controlling access if it were made into a park.
Frey asked what would happen to hunting in the area if it is made a park. It is a prime hunting spot, he said.
Mert Freyholtz of Gildford said he thinks Mount Royal is trying to back out of its investment and make a profit since the people and the Department of Interior have stopped its ability to mine in the hills.
"To me it looks like you're stuck," he said.
Lehman said he thinks Mount Royal should have a return on its investment.
"We have spent a lot of money up there and have made a legitimate discovery of valuable minerals. We feel strongly that we're entitled to reasonable compensation," he said. "We're not looking for the moon, but we want to be reasonably compensated. It's not just surface rights, but valuable gold deposits."
Lehman said the value of the claims would be determined by independent appraisers approved by both sides of the transaction. The appraisal would include the current value of the gold estimated to be in the site, minus the estimated cost of removal.
Some people have estimated that the purchase price would be about $25 million. Lehman said he has no idea where that figure came from.
Mount Royal is proposing to donate about 20 percent of the purchase price back to the state to use to create and maintain the park. Montana's congressional delegation would have to secure federal funds to make the purchase, Lehman said.