- Associated Press - Thursday, July 16, 2015

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - The U.S. Forest Service is considering a more stringent analysis of a mining proposal near Yellowstone National Park after receiving thousands of public comments on the 2,500-acre project, according to an agency spokeswoman.

British Columbia-based Lucky Minerals Inc. wants to search for gold, silver and other metals on federal and private land around Emigrant Peak in south-central Montana.

The area about 20 miles south of the park border has a long history of mining and small-scale gold mining continues to occur.

More recently, Emigrant Peak and the surrounding area has become a destination for wilderness-lovers, with the nearby Chico Hot Springs Resort drawing large numbers of tourists bound for Yellowstone.

The mining proposal is currently undergoing a low-level review by the Custer Gallatin National Forest and state officials. That level of scrutiny could change after area residents and environmentalists voiced opposition and officials consider roughly 2,800 comments they’ve received on the application, forest spokeswoman Marna Daley said.

“We’ve received a lot of comments from folks wanting a higher level of environmental analysis, so we’ll be looking at those,” Daley said. The proposal before the agency, she added, “is not the full-on mining operations.”

A decision on how the Forest Service will proceed is expected by early fall. If the agency decides to undertake the most comprehensive review, an environmental impact statement, that could take many months to complete.

Lucky Minerals Vice President Shaun Dykes said there was no need for a more detailed analysis because the effects on the environment from the exploratory work would be minimal. Drilling for minerals would be done on existing roads or on historic drilling areas, Dykes said, adding that critics were deliberately trying to “sabotage the project from the start” by delaying the company’s efforts and making them more costly.

Any additional work to develop a mine will be dependent on what the company finds.

“Lucky Minerals is simply trying to determine what if anything is present within the claim area,” Dykes said. “The large-scale open-pit mining being presented by the local environmental groups is never going to happen as it is not possible or practical for that area.”

Documents submitted by the company show it could spend an estimated $2.5 million on its exploratory work. Additional permits - and $5 million more - would be spent to obtain information about the gold deposits that are needed before production-level mining could begin.

The “overall target is a multi-million ounce gold property with significant copper (and) silver byproducts,” according to a report prepared for the company in March.

Approval also is needed from the Montana Department of Environmental Protection.

Environmentalists said the company’s exploratory project is merely a prelude to a large mine that doesn’t belong in the area, and its application should be examined in that context.

“This isn’t any old proposal,” said Jenny Harbine with the environmental law firm Earthjustice in Bozeman. “What Lucky Minerals has put forward is a multi-year, aggressive exploration plan, and it can’t shield the environmental consequences that full plan from agency and public scrutiny by dividing it into small steps.”

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