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Advocates call for mining withdrawal on public lands in Smith River area

Smith River Petition Event
Smith River Petition Event
Smith River Petition Event
Posted at 6:53 PM, May 21, 2024

HELENA — Advocates are asking the U.S. Forest Service to take action to prevent mining in public lands near the Smith River.

On Tuesday morning, members of the Smith River Public Lands Coalition met outside the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest offices in Helena. They delivered what they called a “boatload of signatures” – around 10,000 – on a petition calling on USFS to put a mineral withdrawal on forest lands near the planned Black Butte Copper mining project in Meagher County.

“People are always asking us, ‘What can we do to help protect the Smith River from future mining?’” said Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies director for the environmental group American Rivers. “And that's why we offered this petition to those people, and we are going to let the decision makers know what they think by delivering them.”

Bosse said the majority of the signers are from Montana.

Smith River Petition Event

The USFS can ask the Bureau of Land Management to institute a withdrawal, which would prevent new mine claims on the affected area for up to 20 years.

A withdrawal would not affect the Black Butte mine itself, which is on private land. However, advocates said they’re concerned that the mine’s operator – Tintina Montana, owned by Sandfire Resources America – might expand mining in the area because they’ve filed claims on nearby public lands.

“I don't think there's a really good scenario where you could mine in the Smith River watershed – particularly along and underneath its most important trout-spawning tributary – and not end up polluting the Smith River,” Bosse said.

Josh Seckinger, a fishing guide, arrived at the event just hours after getting done with a Smith River trip. He said he’s concerned mining in that area couldn’t go unnoticed.

“Just yesterday, we were on a piece of Forest Service land downstream of one of the boat camps, and there's a Native American pictograph – and right next to it is a bunch of graffiti that people have carved into the rock,” he said. ‘Just that little bit of human impact is noticeable and detrimental to people's experiences in that river corridor.”

Seckinger said supporters of mining point to job creation as a benefit, but that there’s also an economic benefit from landscapes like the Smith.

Smith River Petition Event

Bosse said he hopes these petition signatures will make clear to leaders how strongly people feel about the Smith.

“You ask Montanans – from teenagers to people in their eighties – what is their favorite river in Montana, and the Smith comes up right away,’ he said. “It is so important for fishing, for hunting, for camping, for family traditions. I’ve floated the Smith River ten times. At the Camp Baker put-in, I see people loading urns with their father's or mother's ashes because that is where they wanted to be laid to rest. It is an incredibly special place in Montana. There's no other Smith River.”

Sandfire America released a statement to MTN in response to Tuesday’s event.

“Tintina Montana is focused on moving forward with the future underground mine construction of the permitted Johnny Lee copper deposit located on private property,” said senior vice president Jerry Zieg. “Any projects considered in the future will be held to the same high Company standard of ‘doing it right from the beginning.’ Together, we face the important challenge of providing domestic critical materials for North American security and a sustainable world, while fully protecting environmental and cultural resources. We must all rise to this challenge by working together toward solutions that protect our cherished waterways and support our local communities.”

The Montana Supreme Court is currently considering a case that challenged the permitting process for the Black Butte mine. Justices heard oral arguments in March and haven’t yet released a decision.