Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) A coalition of environmental organizations opposed to mining in the Smith River watershed delivered a petition signed by about 10,000 people Tuesday to the U.S. Forest Service office in Helena urging it to withdraw mineral leases granted to a mining company whose mine on private land nearby is already being challenged.

The Smith River Public Lands Coalition said while Sandfire Resources America’s Black Butte Copper Mine has received plenty of attention in recent years, the company’s filing of about 700 mining claims on public lands pose a similar threat to public lands.

The group said it hopes that showing the Forest Service how many Montanans oppose mining within the watershed and protecting the Smith River, the only permitted river in Montana, and force the Interior Department to consider an administrative mineral withdrawal that would prohibit new mining claims on public land in the watershed in order to preserve the area.

They point to the 2024 Public Lands Survey released by the University of Montana in April, in which 73% of respondents said they would like the Forest Service to open a public process to discuss mining on public lands in the Smith River headwaters, as showing why Montanans want to see the issue addressed.

“Withdrawing these mineral leases would protect the Smith River watershed and the surrounding public lands from a potential environmental disaster,” Montana Wildlife Federation Conservation Director Jeff Lukas said at a news conference the group held Tuesday in front of the Forest Service office in Helena.

The group said it is concerned that tributaries to the Smith could become polluted if mining is expanded and hurt habitat populated by elk, moose, mountain lions, bears and other native species.

“We’ve all heard the old saying, they get the gold and we get the shaft, when it comes to certain mining operations that have occurred in Montana,” Lukas said. “We want the U.S. Forest Service to know that Montanans value the healthy, intact ecosystems that exist on public lands in the Smith River drainage more than any ore that could be mined in that area.”

Sandfire Resources America, formerly Tintina Resources, in February had a permit granted by the Department of Environmental Quality restored by the Montana Supreme Court after it had originally been overturned by a district court.

The court then in March heard oral arguments over a challenge to the company’s water-use permit for the Black Butte Copper Mine, an 1,888-acre mine near Sheep Creek in the Little Belt Mountains but has yet to issue a decision.

Montana Environmental Information Center Executive Director Derf Johnson said Tuesday the coalition is concerned that the company will expand its mining beyond that project and into a multi-decade project on private and public lands, though the company has not done any exploration on public lands so far.

According to Interior Department files, a handful of withdrawals are ordered every few years. But the coalition said public pressure to force changes to mining plans on federal lands have worked before in the North Fork of the Flathead and in the Paradise Valley. The group has talked with the Forest Service about their latest effort and said the agency has not shut the door on considering their proposal.

In response to the petition, a spokesperson with the Forest Service’s Northern Region said the agency is committed to hearing concerns about what is happening on its lands.

“The Forest Service remains committed to listening to concerns and understanding the values we share with partners and the public in managing our public land resources,” the spokesperson said. “We understand that the lands and resources we manage hold great value for many people and we are always happy to receive input from the public.”

Sandfire Resources America Senior Vice President Jerry Zieg, who grew up near the Smith River, said the company was focused on its private land mining at the moment.

“Any projects considered in the future will be held to the same high Company standard of ‘doing it right from the beginning,’” Zieg said in a written statement. “Together, we face the important challenge of providing domestic critical materials for North American security and a sustainable world, while fully protecting environmental and cultural resources. We must all rise to this challenge by working together toward solutions that protect our cherished waterways and support our local communities.”

Bu the coalition — which includes Montana Trout Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, American Rivers, the Montana Environmental Information Center, Wild Montana, Mountain Mamas and the Montana Wildlife Federation — believes the stakes for the watershed are more dire since the company already holds the public leases.

“The Smith River will only remain as healthy as the surrounding public lands that drain into it,” said American Rivers’ Northern Rockies Regional Director Scott Bosse. “Time is running short for the Forest Service to initiate a mineral withdrawal to prevent industrial scale mining from permanently degrading this cherished watershed. It’s now or never.”