SILVER GATE, MONT.
Taking a detour from his holiday golf game in the Tetons, President Clinton today is expected to seek redemption from environmentalists by announcing a dramatic federal plan to stop "the most controversial mine in America" from breaking ground near Yellowstone National Park.
Hushed for weeks under a veil of secret negotiations, the government plan is expected to swap a Canadian mining firm its private property and mineral rights for millions of dollars' worth of federal land holdings elsewhere in the West.
By halting what some consider a major threat to the country's first national park, Clinton hopes to score points among green-minded voters just three months before the general election. The move is also seen as the latest of several land-swap deals to resolve environmental feuds.
Against a backdrop of limpid trout streams and the Rocky Mountains, Mr. Clinton will likely declare the ecological health of Yellowstone is literally worth more than gold. The New World Mine, valued at some $600 million, is one of the richest undeveloped pockets of hard rock minerals in the West, say geologists.
For six years, controversy has raged as Crown Butte Resources of Toronto has prepared to begin mining under provisions in the General Mining Act of 1872, a federal law that allows companies to stake claims on government lands without paying royalties on mined deposits.
The venture has been fought fiercely by environmentalists, who regard New World as the reason the 124-year old mining law needs to be reformed. Conservation groups such as the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Beartooth Alliance, American Rivers, and the National Parks and Conservation Association allege that the development and the disposal of 5.5 million tons of toxic tailings would pose great harm to grizzly-bear habitat, wetlands and the famous Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River, in addition to the sanctity of Yellowstone Park itself.
Joe Baylis, president of Crown Butte, has long accused environmentalists of exaggerating the threat and vowed that the tailings reservoir would be state-of-the-art and able to withstand avalanches and a magnitude 7.5 earthquake.
A draft copy of the agreement obtained by the Monitor outlines an agreement in principle with the federal government taking deed to all of Crown Butte's holdings at New World in exchange for $65 million of federal land elsewhere. The company would also agree to put $20 million in an escrow account to ensure that pollution caused by historic mining and recent exploration is cleaned up. Further, environmentalists agree to drop any future prospects of a lawsuit. At press time, sources close to the talks said the numbers may change.
While some environmentalists say the plan sets a bad precedent, many are elated that the site will be permanently closed to mining. "This is the most controversial mine in America. As long as there are private mining claims at the New World site that can be exercised under the auspices of the 1872 mining law, the possibility of harmful development occurring there will always be present," says Brian Kuehl, an attorney at the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, which helped broker the agreement.
The deal may counter Clinton's less-than-enthusiastic support from middle-of-the-road environmental groups. The Sierra Club's board of directors recently decided to table its decision on whether to endorse the Clinton-Gore ticket because of perceived failures by the administration on environmental protection.
Many have been disappointed the president signed a GOP-led initiative to open Northwest forests to salvage logging, and that he has backed off from making sweeping changes to laws regulating hard rock mining and livestock grazing on public lands.