Regulators Approve Mine Proposal on National Forest Land, Hurdles Remain

Published April 7, 2016

The Obama administration and Montana regulators approved the construction of what could become one of the world’s largest copper and silver mines.

Mines Management’s Montanore Project, which would mine up to 120 million tons of ore in the Kootenai National Forest in northwestern Montana, has been mired in controversy since it was first proposed. The mine would impact 1,542 acres of national forest and have tunnels extending beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness area.

After a seven-year review process, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality issued separate approvals for the mine, both on February 12.

Environmental groups, who have fought the project throughout the review process, say the mine would disrupt some stream flows in the area. Earthworks, Save Our Cabinets, and Defenders of Wildlife are suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, arguing it should intervene to block the mine, in part because it could impact threatened grizzly bear and bull trout populations.

Mines Management CEO Glenn Dobbs has defended the mine’s approval, noting the company has already spent more than $30 million during the extended permitting process on the production of five environmental impact statements, endangered species studies, and a comprehensive hydrology model specific to the project, among other requirements.

As a condition of the approval, the permit requires Mines Management to set aside 6,700 acres of prime grizzly bear habitat, primarily in the Cabinet Mountains, and the company must restore close to 20 miles of small streams clogged by logging and other activities.

Residents Want Jobs

Many residents of nearby Libby, Montana and Lincoln County have been waiting for years for the mine to be approved. With more than 10 percent of its people unemployed, double the national average, Lincoln County has the highest unemployment rate in the state.

Dobbs estimates the mine would create more than 500 jobs during construction and sustain more than 300 jobs during the mine’s 20 years of operations.

“Environmentalists collaborated with the federal government to shut down the once-vibrant logging industry in the region,” said Doug Roll, mayor of Libby. “Now, despite the fact federal agencies have found the mine environmentally benign, and we in the region have long hoped for the mine and the jobs it would bring, environmentalists seem determined to tie it up in court.

“I’m cautiously optimistic the mine will eventually open, since the federal government, normally the biggest hurdle to productive use of the land, has signed off, but you never know with the courts,” Roll said.

Montana state Sen. Jennifer Fielder (R-Thompson Falls) looks forward to the opening of Montanore, which she sees as proof economic development and environmental quality can coincide.

“Northwest Montana is filled with abundant natural resources, yet we are consistently among the most economically depressed areas in the country,” said Fielder. “Accessing our world-class mineral deposits in an environmentally responsible way would bring so many badly needed job opportunities to our area.”

‘Keeping Montanans in Poverty’

Brent Mead, president of the Montana Policy Institute, says government at all levels seems to be in the pocket of environmentalists, keeping Montanans in poverty.

‘While Montanore gained full USFS approval, the state has slow-walked its necessary operating permits,” Mead said. “Montanore has gotten full permits for air quality and the transmission lines, but they were not given a water discharge permit, which is going back for public comments.

“Interestingly enough, in 2013, legislation addressing the water discharge issue passed both houses of the legislature with large majorities,” said Mead. “However, Gov. [Steve] Bullock vetoed the legislation, and during the override vote, Democrats locked ranks and upheld the veto.”

Mead says Montanore is not the only resource development project in the region being delayed by obstructionist efforts or lawsuits by environmental groups.

“Montana also just lost out on the development of the Otter Creek coal tracts due to continual harassment and repeated lawsuits stalling its development,” Mead said. “Arch Coal, one of the nation’s largest coal companies, announced it was ending its bid to develop the tracts in early March.

“Unfortunately, when I look at the Otter Creek coal tracts, when I look at the fight over another project, the Black Butte Copper project, I see obstructionists keen on keeping Montana in poverty,” Mead said. “The lawsuit-mill-operators profit by abusing the legal system and ignoring the needs of our communities.”

“I get a little angry when I talk about natural resource development and permitting,” said Mead. “We have moved away from the idea getting a permit gives you approval to build. Now, a permit gives license for obstructionists to litigate. It is killing our state.”

Fielder says developing some of the region’s abundant natural resources could have a dramatic effect on the area’s economic problems.

“I dream of the day when local people can rise above the poverty level and earn a good, honest income to support themselves and their families,” said Fielder. 

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute.