Tester, Daines disagree on why Yellowstone protection effort failed to make omnibus bill

Sen. Jon Tester and Sen. Steve Daines

While Montana’s congressional delegation disagrees on who did or did not support a bill to remove public land north of Yellowstone National Park from potential mining, all three lawmakers said Wednesday they support the measure.

Still, it didn’t make it into the 2018 federal spending bill despite the urging of Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Greg Gianforte. The reasons why depend on which lawmaker you ask.

“I fought hard to get this into the omnibus (bill), and if Sen. (Steve) Daines had been on this bill, we would have gotten it done,” Tester said. “But with one of the members of the delegation being out, we couldn’t get it in. We need to get this done. This is a no brainer.”

Last week, Tester and Gianforte each sent separate letters to House and Senate leaders urging them to include the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act in the 2018 spending bill.

The measure seeks a withdrawal of mineral rights on 30,000 acres of public land north of the national park and has the stated support of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Currently, at least two mining operations are proposed for the area, including one by Lucky Minerals near Emigrant and another near Jardine by Crevice Mining Group.

While Tester said the measure would have made it into the omnibus bill if Daines had signed on, Daines disagreed with that take, saying he fully supports the withdrawal.

“I vigorously disagree with that assertion,” Daines said. “It’s flat out wrong.”

Daines said a compromised deal had been crafted with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, as well as the Interior and Environment Subcommittee.

Despite that deal, Daines said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said no.

“(Murkowski) was all on board with proposing to Chuck Schumer the Yellowstone withdrawal and adding the Cottonwood provision to it, which was a solid, bipartisan solution, which is needed to move this type of legislation forward,” Daines said.

The so-called Cottonwood decision involved habitat critical to the survival of the Canada lynx in Montana. In that case, the Forest Service was found to be in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

The omnibus bill is expected to include a partial overturning of that decision by the Ninth Circuit Court, and both Daines and Tester have co-sponsored controversial legislation to fully overturn it.

Daines said the Cottonwood decision, along with Yellowstone Gateway, are just two of several issues facing the state. Recognition for the Little Shell Tribe and the East Rosebud Wild and Scenic River designation also remain outstanding issues, he added.

“These are all components we want to see completed and across the finish line,” Daines said. “Just like forest management, we got down to the five-yard line several times in the past, and it looks like this time we’re going to put that in the end zone.

“But similarly with Yellowstone, East Rosebud and the Little Shell, we’re going to keep the fight up and look for the next opportunity to get it across the finish line. We’re not going to give up on the Yellowstone withdrawal.”

Gianforte said Wednesday he was disappointed the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act didn’t make it into the omnibus bill.