The Bitterroot River is downstream of the proposed Sheep Creek Mine, which one of the companies exploring the area promotes on its website as “one of the highest grade rare earth projects in the United States.” Credit: Nathan Boddy / MTFP

The overwhelming sentiment in the public meeting room in Hamilton last week was one of concern. Residents of the Bitterroot Valley were there to watch the documentary “Sagebrush Gold” about the problems brought about by a lithium mine in a Nevada desert. Foremost on most peoples’ minds, however, was the mineral exploration taking place near the headwaters of the West Fork of the Bitterroot River and whether their community will face a similar fate.

Last April, US Critical Materials (USCM) and US Critical Metals notified the U.S. Forest Service of their intent to begin exploring for minerals near Sheep Creek where the two corporations hold hundreds of mining claims. Sheep Creek sits high in the Bitterroot watershed above Painted Rocks Reservoir and near the Idaho border. On its website, USCM promotes Sheep Creek as “one of the highest grade rare earth projects in the United States.”

Rare earth elements (REE) are those minerals critical for many technological components and often touted as necessary for green technology. USMC’s exploration includes sampling, mapping and aerial surveys and is set to conclude by October. If the search proves successful, the companies hope to convert more than 4,500 acres into a multi-billion dollar mining operation. Until the exploratory phase is complete, however, the viability of the mine is uncertain. For many in the room last Wednesday night, that unsettled future presents an opportunity to thwart the mine’s prospects. 

Friends of the Bitterroot, a local non-profit dedicated to environmental advocacy, spearheaded the gathering and was joined by various groups, including the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Clearwater, and the Montana Environmental Information Center. Following the film, several speakers shared their concerns about the mine, the corporations that hold the claims and what they view as potential pitfalls. 

“Hard to imagine that someone would even think of digging a big pit up there,” said Larry Campbell, a retired geologist.

Campbell conceded that momentum for the mine is strong, especially given the backing of federal legislation such as the Rare Earth Elements & Critical Minerals Act, which aims “to support the development of domestic supply chains for rare earth elements and other critical materials.”

“It’s very difficult to stop a mine,” Campbell said. “Almost the only way to really stop a mine is if they go bankrupt or if you can get congressional support.”

Nonetheless, those gathered made clear that many residents fear how the mine may harm the local economy, the community and their way of life.  

Philip Ramsey, lead scientist and general manager of MPG Ranch, a biological research station in Florence, told the crowd that while the company is named US Critical Materials, it is Canadian-owned.

“The more you look at this, the crazier it seems,” he said. “If it were up to me, we wouldn’t issue these guys a fishing permit, much less a mining permit.”

Bonnie Gestring, the northwest program director at Earthworks, shared her concerns about the unforeseen impacts mining operations often have on water quality. For example, she pointed to the Montana Tunnels Mine near Jefferson City, which filed for bankruptcy in 2022. That mine had been inoperable since 2018 when it failed to post an adequate bond, Gestring said, and is now considered abandoned by the Department of Environmental Quality. Since its closure, the pit has widened and is threatening to overtake nearby Clancy Creek, Gestring said, 

“I do think it’s really important to talk about how difficult it is to predict water quality impacts, even today with modern mining,” she said. 

Gestring said that Earthworks and Montana Trout Unlimited commissioned a study of 12 major operating mines in Montana that all began after the implementation of modern federal and state mining regulations in the 1980s.

“We found that 90% of those mines resulted in water quality impacts that were not predicted when the mines were permitted,” she said.

Each speaker echoed the importance of mobilizing to oppose the Sheep Creek Mine and to submit comments to the Forest Service before what they fear will be a short and expedited permitting process.  

Although no representative of USMC spoke at the event, Chris Gammons, a professor of geological engineering at Montana Tech who also serves as USMC’s academic advisor on the Sheep Creek project, was in the audience and provided a written statement to Montana Free Press about the potential mine.

“We found that 90% of those mines resulted in water quality impacts that were not predicted when the mines were permitted.”

Bonnie Gestring, the northwest program director at Earthworks

“We really don’t know at this point whether there is a large deposit of REE there that could ever be mined,” Gammons wrote. “This type of evaluation typically requires several seasons of drilling, and, to my knowledge, there has not been any drilling on the property yet. Of course, any proposal for a mine will need to go through rigorous environmental review, and the property’s location at the head of the West Fork Bitterroot River will no doubt raise the level of public scrutiny.”

Vicki Watson, a retired University of Montana Environmental Studies Department professor, shook her head in disbelief over the proposal. She fears the public will be left paying for the cleanup if bonds fall short and the companies fall into bankruptcy.

“Whatever can go wrong, will,” she said. “When will we ever learn?”

Ramsey from the MPG Ranch said he does not want the fight against the proposed mine to become political. The issue should have nothing to do with a person’s politics but instead should boil down to weighing the risk against the viability of the community’s economy and health. And the risk, he said, of mining in an agricultural valley at the headwaters of a highly valued blue-ribbon trout stream is too significant. 

“If 500 thousand gallons of radioactive waste spills into the West Fork, it’s going to dramatically change everybody’s life in the Bitterroot,” he said. “You’ll kill a sustainable, thriving economy.”

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Nathan Boddy was born and raised in western Montana and is currently a writer and journalist based in the Bitterroot Valley. His varied background includes Peace Corps service in Guatemala, a master’s degree in environmental land use planning, and homeschooling of he and his wife’s two boys.