Dig They Mustn't

LOUISA WILCOX LEANS INTO THE AUTUMN wind skimming across Daisy Pass, 9,700 feet up in southern Montana’s Beartooth Mountains. The view is breathtaking: the Absaroka Mountains to the east, the pristine Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone River to the south and, to the west, Yellowstone National Park—all part of the 18-million-acre Yellowstone ecosystem. But Wilcox’s attention is focused north, on the elegant, 10,500-foot-high spire of Henderson Mountain.

Wilcox isn’t the only one giving Henderson a lot of attention these days. That’s because buried beneath its slopes are 1.7 million ounces of gold, which Crown Butte Mines, the U.S. subsidiary of a giant Canadian conglomerate, Noranda Inc., would like to extract. Wilcox, 38, program director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC), an alliance of 90 environmental groups, has dedicated herself to stopping Crown Butte from getting what it wants and blocking what she sees as a pollution threat to the entire area. “I don’t think the American public is willing to risk Yellowstone National Park so a Canadian company can get richer providing the world with more gold jewelry,” she says.

The dispute over the Henderson lode is shaping up as a classic confrontation between private profit and public land. Crown Butte, which owns most of Henderson Mountain, plans to tunnel into the peak for 15 years, removing as much as 1,800 tons of rock and dirt a day. The mining residue, an estimated five million cubic tons of toxic rubble, is to be dumped into a mile-wide pit. It will eventually rise seven stories high in adjacent Gallatin National Forest—only two miles from Yellowstone’s northern boundary. Wilcox fears that acids and heavy metals will leach from the mine and pit, contaminating Soda Butte Creek, which flows directly into Yellowstone Park. “What people don’t realize is that Yellowstone can be destroyed from outside its boundaries,” she says.

Crown Butte officials insist their mine would be environmentally safe. “We’ll be using the latest, most advanced scientific methods, including clay and plastic-lined pits,” says project manager Dan McLaughlin. He concedes there will be “some displacement of wildlife” during the life of the mine, but says that when it closes, the land will be reclaimed and animals will return.

The dispute will be decided by the Montana Department of State Lands and the U.S. Forest Service, whose environmental-impact statement on the Henderson project is scheduled for completion in 1994. Meanwhile, Wilcox won’t be standing idly by. She plans to make sure the Forest Service sees GYC’s own scientific studies of groundwater pollution and aquatic ecology. In addition, Wilcox has been making the rounds of coffee klatches in Wyoming and Montana, where opinion about the mine is divided. “Political considerations are obviously a factor and will influence the outcome of the EIS,” she says. That being the case, last September, Wilcox rounded up a group of 12 Montana residents opposed to the mine and flew with them to Washington, to lobby Montana congressman Pat Williams.

Wilcox’s passion for the West took root when she was a teenager working summers on ranches in Wyoming and Montana. Her father, John, a mechanical engineer, died when she was 12, and her mother, Joyce, a homemaker, raised Louisa and her two siblings in Malvern, Pa. After graduating from Williams College, Wilcox returned to Wyoming and taught mountaineering for nine years. In 1986, two years after obtaining a forestry degree from Yale, she was hired as program director for the three-year-old Greater Yellowstone Coalition. Her mastery of the region’s science and politics—and her aggressive style—have earned her the respect of both friends and foes. “She’s a scrapper,” says Yellowstone’s chief ranger, Dan Sholly. “It’s her life.” Adds another park official who has jousted with her: “She can be annoying. Her way is the right way.”

Wilcox’s ally in her crusade is her husband, Douglas Honnold, 39, a lawyer with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund whom she married last summer in a ceremony behind their house in Montana’s Paradise Valley. “We share a passion for wilderness,” she says.

That passion is evident as Wilcox, driving through Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, slows to let a herd of bison cross the road. “This place is magic,” she says. “It’s hard to travel through the park and not be moved by the wildness of it, and it’s our responsibility not to mess it up for future generations.”


BILL SHAW in Yellowstone

Related Articles