Polishing its plan: Lucky Minerals hopes to gain trust, support for its proposed mine near Yellowstone

Polishing its plan: Lucky Minerals hopes to gain trust, support for its proposed mine near Yellowstone

Source: Bozeman Daily Chronicle
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By Michael Wright

After two years of loud opposition, the company that wants to look for gold in the mountains north of Yellowstone National Park is working on its image.

Lucky Minerals Inc. has spruced up its website, and a new one is set to launch this week. There’s a Facebook page now, too, and next week five people affiliated with the company will come to Bozeman and Livingston to meet people and continue strategizing for how they can gin up support for their exploration project in Emigrant Gulch, the narrow canyon behind Chico Hot Springs.

Noelle Laury, a Boise-based public relations contractor, said it’s about engaging the community, improving the company’s transparency and combating what she and Lucky Minerals feel is “misinformation” coming from the company’s opponents.

And yes, she acknowledged, this all probably should have started two years ago.

“We know we’ve got our work cut out for us,” she said.

They’re up against a well-organized campaign from environmental groups and a coalition of businesses that don’t want to see anyone drilling in Emigrant Gulch. Via T-shirts, stickers, hats and lawn signs, they proclaim that the Paradise Valley is the wrong place to mine, and that any such activity could threaten the environment and the region’s tourism-based economy.

Karrie Kahle, a spokeswoman for the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, said she doesn’t see how Lucky can successfully reframe its image.

“They’re trying to put a gold mine on the doorstep of Yellowstone National Park,” she said. “I don’t know how you come back from that.”

The fight has been brewing since the summer of 2015, when Lucky Minerals Inc. first asked for permission to look for gold in Emigrant Gulch. The company’s website says there’s potential for a “multi-million ounce” gold deposit there. Exploration companies have come and gone there for decades, but Lucky plans to drill deeper than the rest in search of its treasure.

Opposition sprang up almost immediately. Environmentalists and locals opposed to the mines say the exploration project can only lead to a massive mine, which they worry might harm water quality and make the Paradise Valley a less-desirable tourism destination. Hundreds of businesses — many in the tourism industry — have joined the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, which formed to battle Lucky and another company that wants to mine near Jardine.

The company disputes the claims of its opponents, but in the first year and a half of the fight, the opposition tallied up a few wins.

Lucky backed off a proposal to drill on federal land after it learned the level of environmental analysis the U.S. Forest Service was going to require. Politicians took the side of the mine opponents.

And, in the fall of 2016, the Obama administration announced a two-year ban on new mining claims on roughly 30,000 acres of federal lands in the area, a move mine opponents say will cripple Lucky’s ability to mine profitably there. Federal officials are considering whether to extend the ban now, and Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester has introduced a bill to make the ban permanent.

Yet, through all that, Lucky’s plans to drill on private land stayed alive. This past July, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality signed off on the company’s plan to drill 46 holes in the St. Julian claim block, a slice of private land deep in the mountains.

The Park County Environmental Council and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition sued Lucky and DEQ over that decision in September. The lawsuit is ongoing.

Despite the suit, though, Lucky is preparing to drill next summer. Shaun Dykes, the company’s vice president, said studies of wildlife and water quality have begun on the property, an effort to establish baseline data for the project. The company has also paid for an aerial survey to map important geological features in the area.

New executives are now listed on the company website alongside Dykes, who has been the de facto face of the company since it proposed the exploration project. Dykes said they’re all skilled mining experts who can help the company raise the money they need for exploration — between $3 million and $5 million for this phase. He said they haven’t secured any major investors yet.

“Stay tuned,” he said.

Aside from St. Julian, the company is looking at six other claim blocks in the area. If they were to develop those, they would have to ask for permission from the government, and Dykes said they’re waiting on that until they know what will come of St. Julian. Exploration is the first step in mine development, a matter of looking underground to see if an ore body can be mined profitably.

“If we have success at St. Julian, we can justify spending more money to obtain permits to drill the other ones,” Dykes said.

He said they’ve spent about $500,000 so far. The company has yet to put up the roughly $154,000 the state is requiring for a reclamation bond.

The company has a Montana subsidiary, Lucky Minerals Montana. A Livingston mailing address for the company is listed in documents filed with the Montana Secretary of State, and the company has a physical office in Missoula. Laury said the project manager is based there.

As she sees it, Laury’s job is to educate people about the company and what it plans to do — like how it doesn’t plan to put an open pit mine in the gulch.

“There’s so many myths out there,” she said.

She said they hope to hire a local community liaison for the project, but for now, it’s up to her. She’s an independent public relations professional who does a lot of work in the mining industry. She has worked for Dykes on a molybdenum mine in Idaho.

She and a counterpart visited the Livingston area earlier this year and they met with some of the leading opponents of Lucky’s proposal. She said those meetings were “mostly research for our strategic communications and community engagement plans.”

Kahle was one of the people who met with them, and she was unimpressed.

“I think our response has been to them, as politely as possible, that there’s not a whole lot they can do to change all of our minds,” she said. “They can’t just show up two years later and say they want to be a part of this community.”

Laury said they did run into some people who weren’t opposed to Lucky’s plans. This time around, she has planned an informational dinner. She’s invited members of the Facebook group “Locals Against Tester’s Mining Ban,” which has served as the most formal organization of Lucky’s supporters to date.

“We’re hoping to earn the trust of the community and of both supporters and opposition,” Laury said.