By Martin J. Kidston
Hard rock mining, oil and gas exploration and subdivisions are among the recent threats menacing Montanas Rocky Mountain front, and if successful they could dramatically alter the areas ecological balance.
Known to local Indian Nations as the backbone of the world, Montanas Rocky Mountain front is unique in its largely untouched beauty and provision of vital habitat to wildlife. But rumors of rich minerals, oil and gas and prime real estate have turned the eye of business-minded prospectors whos greed now threatens one of Montanas last best places.
Bonnie Gestring of the Montana Environmental Information Center based in Helena, said the Forest Services recent moratorium on mining claims along the Rocky Mountain front is the first step in halting activities, such as mineral exploration, which would have an environmental impact on the area. It also allows time to amend the outdated mining law of 1872.
The current moratorium, which began in February of 1999, will last for two years, Gestring said. The temporary cessation will give the Forest Service time to examine the possibility of extending the two-year moratorium to 20-years, the longest allowed by law.
For the next two years, the Forest Service will conduct an Environmental Impact Statement on the area, Gestring said. They will study the impacts that would result from withdrawing the region from mineral exploration.
The Forest Service, which said that while the risk of mineral development may be low, admitted that no risk is acceptable along the Rocky Mountain front.
The withdrawing of the acreage adjacent to a sensitive wilderness area continues our conservation leadership in the areas ecosystem, a Forest Service newsletter reads.
But withdrawing the land from mineral exploration may not be enough to protect sensitive regions from future mineral development, and a change in the 1872 mining law may be necessary.
Gestring said that in 1996, Mark Aldredge, a businessman from Wyoming, filed 104 unpatented mining claims which were permitted by the outdated mining law. The claims were staked in 2,400 roadless acres along Montanas Rocky Mountain front, in public lands that exist between the Bob Marshal and Black Leaf Wilderness areas. It is rumored that Aldredge is after diamonds, but Gestring said he has never stated so publicly.
This is 2,400 acres this man can privatize if he can demonstrate there are marketable quantities of minerals, Gestring said. If he finds marketable quantities of minerals, the 1872 mining law allows him to buy the mining rights and minerals for only $5 an acre.
Gestring said the 1872 mining law, which states that mining is the highest use of the land, makes it hard to stop such activities from encroaching upon the boarders of Montanas wilderness areas. The last example was the New World Mine, which wanted to operate outside Yellowstone National Park. Only a buyout by the federal government prevented the company from mining in the sensitive location.
It is very difficult to oppose a mining project, which is why the Forest Services moratorium on the Rocky Mountain front is so important, Gestring said. It is one of the few tools they have to withdraw land in areas where they think mining is not appropriate.
Gestring said that efforts to reform the 1872 mining law have never been successful.
The law is incredibly old. When it was established there was no electricity and Montana wasnt a state, Gestring said. The good thing about the moratorium is that it gives more time for reforming the 1872 law.
Gestring also made note of public efforts to preserve the states Rocky Mountain front.
I think there is a very long list of conservation efforts to preserve the Rocky Mountain front, Gestring said, mentioning such establishments as the Pine Butte Swamp Preserve. There has been a tremendous amount of work by Montanans since the beginning of the century and I think the Forest Service has an enormous amount of support in the moratorium.
During the moratorium the Forest Service will study the possibility of withdrawing 429,000 acres of National Forest System lands along the Rocky Mountain front from mineral development. However, Aldredges 104 existing claims would be grandfathered under the withdrawal, unless they are abandoned or determined to be invalid.
The Forest Services withdrawal would prohibit the relocation of any new claims, but the 1872 mining law would remain intact.