Gold in Yellowstone Mine buyout: Deal deserves swift approval, but should set no precedent for public lands.


FEDERAL PAYMENT of $65 million to the Crown Butte mining company to block a gold mine at the doorstep of Yellowstone National Park is the best way out of a bad situation. But it shouldn't be a precedent for future efforts to protect invaluable natural treasures from despoliation by mining.

If Congress agrees -- and that is a major hurdle -- the government would pay Crown Butte Resources with federal mineral royalties to abandon its plans. Despite charges of "goldmail," the firm would merely recover its costs and the expense of a comprehensive cleanup.

There is understandable concern that initial funding would be offset from a farmland conservation program dear to congressional leaders, and that the White House did not stick to its original plan to swap other federal properties with Crown Butte.

But suitable federal lands and buildings for exchange could not be found, unlike other deals made quietly over the years to conserve the integrity of federal lands and parks. Room for these negotiations was exceptionally limited.

Yet the administration had to act, and act promptly, to protect the nation's first national park. The cash payment (from Montana mineral leases) appeals to the mining firm. Congress should approve the deal, even if the financing would delay for a year the protection of 2 million acres of fragile, erodible farmland.

Gold mining wastes are toxic, the abandoned open-pit mines and dump heaps of tailings threatening to pollute waters with heavy minerals and poisons. Taxpayers have been saddled with heavy cleanup bills, even as precious rivers and lakes have been ruined. This is not an aesthetic blight, but a real threat to the natural environment and its creatures.

The 200-acre Crown Butte mine is on private land by the park. Compensation was the only solution. But some 6,000 other mining claims remain within the Yellowstone ecosystem.

This ongoing threat must be met with tougher environmental rules and enforcement, to halt destructive activities that imperil sensitive, irreplaceable public patrimony.

Overhaul of the 19th century mining law is also overdue, to limit mining claims and mines on public properties and to avoid exorbitant taxpayer buyouts. That lesson should be dearly learned from the Crown Butte experience.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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