Protecting the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness from Large-Scale Mining Threats

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cabinet mountain wilderness
Image via Troy Smith / Flickr

In Western Montana, the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness — a 35-mile wide stretch of remote and pristine land that provides refuge to a dangerously small population of threatened grizzly bears and supplies some of the purest water in the nation — is facing permanent harm by two proposed mines by mining company, Hecla.

The Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in the Kootenai National Forest is one of the original ten areas protected by Congress under the Wilderness Act of 1964. Unfortunately, the General Mining Law of 1872 has given the Forest Service no choice by to issue a permit for Hecla, granting them permission to build mines that would tunnel beneath the pristine forest.

Cabinet Mountain Wilderness Mining Plans

The two mines proposed by Hecla would extract ore by hollowing out giant underground rooms, leaving overlying wilderness lands held up by rock pillars. To keep the tunnels dry during mining, the groundwater table would be lowered, thus reducing water flow in overlying streams. Over 26 miles of rivers and streams will be affected, reducing water flow while putting bull trout at risk.

Hecla also plans to use a risky dam designed to store the 120 million tons of toxic mining waste (tailings), which would be left permanently in an unlined pile covering over 346 acres just 1/4 mile from the Clark Fork River.

If approved, the mines are predicted to (1):
– Reduce water flow in Cabinet Mountain Wilderness streams for over 1,000 years,
– Threaten the small population of grizzly bears through industrialization of the area,
– Put the Clark Fork River at risk by storing mining waste behind an unlined tailings dam,
– Discharge polluted water for centuries after the mine closes; the State of Montana says the effects of pollution could last forever.

Bad Actor

Earthjustice requested to intervene in an enforcement lawsuit brought by the Department of Environmental Quality against Hecla Mining CEO. They did so on behalf of the Ksanka Kupaqa Xaʾⱡȼin (a traditional society within the Ksanka Band of the Ktunaxa Nation), Fort Belknap Indian Community, and a coalition of conservation groups (2).

Their enforcement request asked the State of Montana to enforce the “bad actor” provision in state law against Hecla’s CEO, Phillips S. Baker for failing to complete mine clean-up at his former company, Pegasus Gold. The “bad actor” provision is a statute or regulation that denies a license, permit, or other benefit to a person or company based on poor regulatory compliance history (3).

In March 2018, the State of Montana took enforcement action and issued violation letters to Hecla Mining Company and its CEO. Back in 1998, Pegasus Gold declared bankruptcy, leaving behind several polluting mines – Zortman Landusky, Beal Mountain and Basin Creek. Tens of millions of public funds have since been spent by Montana in an effort to clean up the toxic waste left from these mines.

“The bad actor law offers a critical opportunity to hold the leadership of Pegasus Gold accountable for the unspeakable harm they inflicted on Montana’s communities and waters,” said Katherine O’Brien, staff attorney at Earthjustice.

Ktunaxa Nation Resist Mining Developments

Ktunaxa tribal members, including elder Wilbert Michel Buckskin, have been working to bring together the bands of the Ktunaxa Nation to fight the proposed Rock Creek and Montanore mines.

As a child, Wilbert Michel Buckskin remembers waking up alongside his dad in a little lean-to beneath the soaring cliffs and peaks of Cabinet Mountain Wilderness (4). His drive to protect the pristine forests of Cabinet Mountain includes these very memories, and to ensure his community, and future generations no longer have to deal with the dangers that mining companies pose to their land.

Buckskin is also apart of the Crazy Dog Society, a highly esteemed group of tribal members who’ve served in the U.S. military. Now, his fight is to protect his own home against a powerful corporation with one goal – money.

Buckskin explains to Earthjustice that for Ktunaxa, the Cabinets are more than just a wilderness area – they serve as a “living room” for grizzly bears, a culturally important species for the tribe (5). The Cabinets are also the place where many tribal members visit regularly to carry out spiritual ceremonies and practices passed down from their ancestors. They want to be able to share these traditions with their children and grandchildren, but Hecla mining might abolish those plans.

Ktunaxa tribe members are motivated in part after seeing the devastation caused by the Zortman-Landusky mines – two abandoned gold mines that to this day, contaminate the lands and waters of the Fort Belknap Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes in eastern Montana.

Not too surprisingly, CEO of Hecla, Phillips Baker, was a top official at the company that ran Zortman-Landusky. Advocates of the Ktunaxa tribe want to ensure their indigenous lands do not become another victim to the destruction caused by the mining industry.

“[The idea that they would] destroy the last, best place is pretty devastating to me. And why?” Buckskin asked Earthjustice. “Just for a few handfuls of dollars to make somebody else rich who doesn’t even live here in Montana? It’s greed. Greed over beauty.”

According to Hecla Mining Company‘s website:

“In May 2017, the Montana Federal District Court overturned previously granted environmental approvals and remanded the Record of Decision and related documents of the US Forest Service and US Fish and Wildlife Service for further review by the agencies consistent with the Court’s opinions. In its decision, the Court advised the agencies they could issue a new Record of Decision and related documents for just the initial evaluation phase of the project, which has minimal environmental effects, or reconsider the entire project once again. It is anticipated that the next steps will be for the Forest Service to prepare a new Record of Decision and the Fish and Wildlife Service to prepare new Biological Opinions, in each case to address the deficiencies in those documents identified by the Court. Construction and operational activities are contingent upon meeting terms of the permits.”

What You Can Do To Help

If you’re passionate about helping protect Cabinet Wilderness, you can take action by following the instructions on Earthjustice’s website.

If you live in Montana (or have friends who do), please call Governor Steve Bullock’s office and the state Department of Environmental Quality at (406) 412-6076. Earthjustice states to share this message: Montana residents support the enforcement of Montana’s “bad actor” mining law against Hecla Mining CEO Phillips Baker.

Until now, the state of Montana has never used the “bad actor” mining law against any powerful mining company. Please add your voice today!

You can also fill out this form to urge your Representatives to oppose the “critical minerals” amendment in the National Defense Authorization Act.

Supporting indigenous efforts to restore justice to the land is also essential to ensure these communities can thrive on their ancestral homelands – undamaged. Indigenous people cannot afford to lose the fight against companies like Hecla – nor can we.

Sharing this article will also help get the word out.

Carly Fraser has her BSc (Hons.) Degree in Neuroscience, and is the owner and founder at Live Love Fruit. She currently lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with a determined life mission to help inspire and motivate individuals to critically think about what they put in their bodies and to find balance through nutrition and lifestyle. She has helped hundreds of thousands of individuals to re-connect with their bodies and learn self-love through proper eating habits and natural living. She loves to do yoga, dance, and immerse herself in nature.

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