Sen. Schumer weighs in on Yellowstone protection amid Montana delegation’s disagreement

While Yellowstone National Park remains secure, area residents and businesses are uniting to withdraw public land outside the park in Montana from mineral development, something Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Greg Gianforte support. Sen. Steve Daines said he’s looking for compromise, though he has expressed support as well. (Missoula Current file photo)

Montana’s two U.S. senators disagreed this week on why a popular measure to withdraw land north of Yellowstone National Park from potential mining failed to make it into the federal spending bill passed by Congress and signed Friday by the president.

Sen. Jon Tester said he pushed to get the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act included in the 2018 omnibus bill, but added that Sen. Steve Daines thwarted the effort by failing to join the state’s delegation in supporting the measure.

Daines called that claim “flat-out wrong” and blamed Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, for the measure’s exclusion from the spending bill. But in a statement to the Missoula Current, Schumer said Daines’ claim was incorrect.

“Jon Tester was relentless in this fight calling me day and night to defend Montana businesses and protect Yellowstone,” Schumer said. “I am deeply frustrated that Republicans in Congress blocked the inclusion of this bill, which would protect clean water outside America’s first national park, in the omnibus.”

The flap began Wednesday as Congress began to digest the scope and costs of the omnibus bill, which includes a number of measures touted by Montana’s delegation to Congress.

In an early morning conference call, Tester said the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act would have been included in the spending package had Daines supported it.

“I fought hard to get this into the omnibus (bill), and if Sen. Daines had been on this bill, we would have gotten it done,” Tester said. “But with one of the members of the delegation being out, we couldn’t get it in. We need to get this done. This is a no brainer.”

In a separate conference call later that day, Daines said he “vigorously disagreed” with Tester’s assertion. He said a compromised deal had been crafted with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to which Schumer said no.

“(Murkowski) was all on board with proposing to Chuck Schumer the Yellowstone withdrawal and adding the Cottonwood provision to it, which was a solid, bipartisan solution, which is needed to move this type of legislation forward,” Daines said.

Schumer told the Missoula Current on Thursday that Republicans in Congress blocked the Yellowstone bill’s inclusion. The Cottonwood decision is a separate matter that has rankled Republicans who believe it has stalled timber projects.

What is known is that Tester and Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana, both wrote letters supporting the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, and they urged House and Senate leadership to include the bill.

Daines, however, did not write a letter of support, though he suggested he was interested in seeing the Yellowstone act approved. A member of his staff reiterated that point on Friday.

“Moving any land management bill through both the Senate and House frequently requires compromise among members with diverse priorities, and that has proven no different with Yellowstone,“ a Daines’ spokesperson said.

“The senator is committed to making more progress on forest management reform and getting the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, the East Rosebud Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the Little Shell Tribe’s federal recognition across the finish line.”

The Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, which includes widespread support from local government, businesses and residents, seeks a withdrawal of mineral rights on 30,000 acres of public land north of the national park. It also has the stated support of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Currently, at least two mining operations are proposed for the area, including one by Lucky Minerals near Emigrant and another near Jardine by Crevice Mining Group.

Daines’ spokesperson said the senator, as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, doesn’t typically write letters to the committee other than requests at the beginning of a process.

Daines’ office also said that bills that have had regular order on both sides of the Capitol – committee hearings and markups – stand a better chance of inclusion.

The Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act hasn’t had a markup yet or passed either chamber, and the East Rosebud bill hasn’t yet passed the House Committee, the spokesperson said.