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The New West: It’s easy to ban unpopular mines, harder to embrace self-limitation

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CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

The late American conservationist David Brower was a friend of mine. He once remarked that “polite conversationalists leave no mark, save the scars upon the Earth that could have been prevented had they stood their ground.”

Ask yourself this: Are you willing to stand in the breaches, protecting wildness against the constant, incessant forces that are eroding what remains of a national treasure like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

This week there is victory.

In an action proclaimed by some as “a victory for tourism over mining,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke came to the Greater Yellowstone. He announced that he was extending an Obama administration ban on proposed hardrock mineral explorations planned to occur near the front doorstep of Yellowstone National Park and along the rim of Montana’s vaunted Paradise Valley.

For the broad array of professional conservationists, business leaders and citizens, Zinke’s announcement brought relief and much deserved praise.

Zinke utilized what the powers of his cabinet position afforded him. Now it remains to be seen if the administrative prohibition can be made permanent through federal legislation brought by all three members of Montana’s congressional delegation in the Senate and House.

The threat of one new mine opening up near Yellowstone’s northern entrance, and another on the backside of Emigrant Peak, a summit in the Absarokas that towers over the Yellowstone River, has been a galvanizing force in a time of incredible partisan division.

An uncommon, diverse group of private interests rallied together for conservation, prompting Zinke, a former congressman from Montana, to repeat the well-worn cliché that there are some places more valuable than gold.

Indeed, point of fact, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is chock full of irreplaceable natural wonders, for which all the money in the world couldn’t re-create once destroyed.

Notably, no one has suggested that the remedy to resolve the clash of values over mining was to promote fuzzy collaboration; instead it was to draw a hard line.

More and more, there are two other clichés being bandied about in Greater Yellowstone besides the one that says, “there are some places more valuable than gold.” These pertain to worries about “killing the goose that lays the golden egg” and “loving places to death.”

Almost no one I’ve met in Greater Yellowstone fails to understand what’s at stake as corners of our region—which holds the most iconic complex of wildlands in the Lower 48—come under rapid inundation by more permanent residents, expanding development, millions of visitors and crushing levels of use.

One example is the Madison River. The Madison is born in Yellowstone National Park and flows on a generally northwesterly course, eventually converging with the Gallatin and Jefferson rivers to create the Missouri River.

The Madison is among an almost holy triumvirate of cold-water trout streams and it has been a lucrative hub for water-related tourism.

As a working river recreationally speaking, the Madison racks up tons of angler days by floaters and waders. And, in recent years, a stretch managed by the Bureau of Land Management west of Bozeman has come under exploding levels of traffic from inner tubers whose use has risen to industrial strength.

On some hot summer days, flotillas convey the look and feel of a commercial water park. Upstream, meanwhile, the number of angling days—and pressure on the fishery—has undergone its own form of eruption.

Who could argue with human beings enjoying, using and profiting from a natural resource?

In my 33 years of reporting, I’ve never seen a commercial tourism purveyor voluntarily agree to limit numbers of potential clients. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks says that in 2017 there were 179,000 angling days on the Madison and the trend is upward. Commercial use increased 72 percent in less than a decade.

As with the protracted, contentious battle over controlling the number of snowmobile users in Yellowstone following years of unregulated use, even harmful recreation use levels and impacts, once established, are enormously difficult to reverse.

Many wildlife officials I know say there needs to be an honest discussion, which currently isn’t happening, about public land recreation or the very qualitative things we love about nature in this region—most prominently, the abundant wildlife—are going to be overrun and lost. It’s already happening.

This isn’t mere assertion; the impacts of unbridled recreation have been demonstrated over and over again in other parts of the country where wildness as we savor it here has been eroded.

So yes, it’s momentous to stop proposed hardrock mines enormously unpopular with the public, but the true test of courage is politicians, business people, citizens, advocates and users agreeing to embrace limits on their own desires for the good of the resource.

Are we capable of doing that, or is 21st century industrial-strength tourism no different than 19th century industrial-strength mining; in the name of jobs and commerce behaving blindly to the impacts of our own exploitation and leaving the character of the landscape depleted in our wake?

To quote Brower again, who noted the need for tireless, endless vigilance in safeguarding the environment: “Our victories are temporary and our losses permanent.”

Todd Wilkinson is founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal ( and a correspondent for National Geographic. He also is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at

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