Frontiers: Yellowstone: More valuable than gold

Yellowstone

Mining near sensitive ecosystems is one of the hottest natural resource debates, pitting economic and environmental values against each other. As the controversy surrounding mining in Minnesota continues, opponents may want to take a few notes from one of the nation’s largest, successful anti-mining campaigns to date.

Portrait: Mike ClarkMike Clark, former executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, shared his experience fighting the New World mining project outside the nation’s largest national park in the 1980s and 1990s in his Frontiers in the Environment lecture Wednesday, April 9 on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.

In “Yellowstone: More Valuable Than Gold,” Clark discussed what makes the park and surrounding landscape so valuable and why that usually leads to conflict.

“Yellowstone is the most famous park in our part of the world, maybe in the world, and there are always conflicts because what we have done as a society is we have created the concept of protected lands around two different concepts–one being a national park and one being wilderness areas,” he said. “And in those spaces we have basically said capitalism is not supreme, there are limits on what you can do to the land and how you maximize your profits in national parks and wilderness areas. We put limits on what humans can do. And as a species, we don’t like that; we don’t like limits. So part of what happens is that people fight to open up these lands for profit.”

That’s exactly what happened with the New World project when a Canadian company discovered five different gold ore bodies on a site just northeast of the Park in the 1980s. From that point on, the Coalition was prepared to fight.

“The fear from the beginning was that this mine would have a direct and indirect impact on Yellowstone Park,” Clark said. “First in terms of water, but secondly in terms of huge industrial areas suddenly blossoming on the edge of Yellowstone Park. So the battle was joined.

“Local people came to groups like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Wilderness Society, American Rivers, National Parks Conservation Association, and said, ‘We need help.’ They began to have a series of meetings and they quickly decided that a mine like this could not be mitigated. You had to stop it. There was no way to compromise because of this location.”

The Coalition organized a grassroots effort, getting local residents to speak about the potential impact of the mine on the tourism economy. They also developed a legal strategy to fight the permitting process and a national media campaign. Some GYC staff members even used the media to corner then-President Bill Clinton on his vacation in the area.

All of these strategies improved the campaign, but Clark believes the key to success was pulling together multiple interests to reach as many people as possible.

“There are some clear lessons involved,” he said. “One is you have to have a broad diverse coalition of people representing a wide range of interests. The battle engaged thousands of people around the country. At the peak of the battle it was the most well-known mining battle going on in the United States at the time.”

A government buyout in 1996 ensured that the New World Mine site would not move forward, proof–for Clark–that while fighting a mining project is no small challenge, it can be done.

“I don’t think it sets a lot of precedents, but it does show that if you can create the right kinds of combinations of coalitions and you build an image of what is right and what is wrong, the American people will respond,” he said. “And if they respond, then our political leaders will respond.

“But in my experience in fighting a mine, you have to have the technical stuff in place–you have to be very good at that–you have to have a legal strategy in place, and you have to turn the battle. You have to flip it from a technical issue to a political issue. You have to convince your political leaders that this is not a good idea. And if you do, then they can intervene and if they want to help you they can find a way to stop it. The issue is leadership.”

Watch Clark’s full presentation online.

John Sisser is a communications assistant with the Institute on the Environment.