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Against the Odds, Conservation, Industry Celebrate 20 Years of Agreement

The Good Neighbor Agreement between a mining company and Montana conservation groups ensures citizen oversight of water quality. (Northern Plains Resource Council)
The Good Neighbor Agreement between a mining company and Montana conservation groups ensures citizen oversight of water quality. (Northern Plains Resource Council)
May 8, 2020

BILLINGS, Mont. - An unlikely pairing of conservation and industrial interests in Montana is celebrating two decades of cooperation today.

In these divisive times, it could serve as a model for bringing more folks together. The Good Neighbor Agreement was signed on May 8, 2000, between the Stillwater Mining Company and three community organizations in south-central Montana to protect local waterways and quality of life.

Paul Hawks is a rancher and member of the Cottonwood Resource Council, and was part of the original agreement. He says they first set up an oversight committee with two votes on each side, and that kept both sides at the table.

"We began to understand each other and develop a relationship," says Hawks. "So we have personal relationships as well as business relationships with these people, so that's what develops the trust, and so I think that's what's served us over these last 20 years."

The agreement also includes the Stillwater Protective Association and Northern Plains Resource Council, a conservation and family agriculture group in Montana. The mine owner is now called Sibanye-Stillwater Mining Company.

Before the agreement was signed, local residents sued the state to keep the waters of the Boulder and Stillwater rivers clean from the proposed mine. Hawks says the rivers are world-class fisheries and locals wanted them to stay that way.

He says the lawsuit was a three-year court battle that went nowhere. When the mining company decided to go ahead with their project, locals decided to send a letter to the company asking them to sit down and talk through their concerns.

Hawks says the company agreed.

"You know, when you get involved in a lawsuit, you lose time and it's a lot of money spent on both sides that often don't get you where you want to go," says Hawks. "So this process actually brings you to a table, keeps you at the table to discuss things."

The Sibanye-Stillwater Mining Company has continued expanding its operations even as water-quality protections have improved. Hawks says the agreement has evolved, too, with the two sides putting greater focus on groundwater protections in recent years.

He believes the Good Neighbor Agreement is a working model for cooperation between industry and local communities.

"You need to have an organized group of people who are willing to put the time and dedication into it, as we have for 20 years, to be at the other side of the table to help work through the issues," says Hawks. "So it's a major commitment."

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT