Legally-binding contract protects pristine rivers and quality of life in rural Montana

Thursday, May 14, 2020
Community volunteers study fish populations in the East Boulder River as part of the Good Neighbor Agreement. Courtesy photo

Community volunteers study fish populations in the East Boulder River as part of the Good Neighbor Agreement. Courtesy photo

May 8, 2020, marked the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Neighbor Agreement, a legally-binding contract overseeing an expansive mine operation in Montana. The contract was negotiated between the Stillwater Mining Company (now Sibanye-Stillwater Mining Company) and three community organizations – the Northern Plains Resource Council and two of its affiliate groups, the Cottonwood Resource Council and Stillwater Protective Association.

The Agreement has provided a legal framework that gives local people a direct say in mine-related decisions that affect their communities and the watersheds of the Boulder and Stillwater Rivers. In addition to protecting water qual

In addition to protecting water quality, it has also preserved the rural quality of life deep-rooted in the values of these communities. In the 1990s, local residents in the

In the 1990s, local residents in the two watersheds sought ways to preserve the pristine waterways and natural landscapes seated below stretches of Montana’s Beartooth Mountains. Concerned about the impacts of the growing mine operation, community members sent a letter to the mine – as neighbors instead of legal adversaries – inviting company officials to sit down and talk through concerns. The mine agreed.

After a year of tough negotiations, a Good Neighbor Agreement was signed on May 8, 2000.

Paul Hawks, a Melville, rancher and member of Cottonwood Resource Council was part of the original team who negotiated the Agreement in 2000. He describes the Agreement as a model for expanding how to think about industrycommunity relations.

“Successful community development of natural resources goes beyond creating jobs. It recognizes the other values that make a community a nice place to live and prosper,” said Hawks. “It seeks to give equal voice to those

“It seeks to give equal voice to those values throughout the planning, development, operation, and closure of that resource project. The Good Neighbor Agreement gives that voice a formal seat at the table.”

The Agreement has taken work and dedication to maintain for so long, especially considering its unconventional nature. The contract has endured even as the mine has changed ownership four times in the subsequent decades. Despite the challenges, the Agreement remains a working example of how ranchers, rural communities, and mining companies can work together to address local environmental and economic issues without going to court.

“In an era of increased political polarization, when the conflict and division between people with different views of the world are rarely resolved, the Good Neighbor Agreement proves that sustained cooperation is possible,” said Charles Sangmeister, a member and past president of Stillwater Protective Association who lives in Nye, directly across the road from mine operations.

The Agreement has continually improved the standards required of the Stillwater and East Boulder Mines, even throughout the mining operation’s continued expansion. Recent additions to the Agreement have expanded testing of groundwater and require the mine to take immediate action if contamination is found.

For two decades, the Good Neighbor Agreement has:

• Provided for citizen oversight of mining operations in order to ensure that the area’s quality of life and productive agricultural land are protected

• Established clear and enforceable water quality standards above and beyond state requirements

• Created a program of citizen involvement to study the water quality and biological health of the rivers

• Improved public safety by providing bus transportation for mine workers, which reduces traffic on rural roads

• Prevented the development of “man-camps”

• Given local groups access to expert technical advisors

“The Good Neighbor Agreement has ensured that our communities remain a place where people hike, fish, raft, enjoy the scenery, and, most importantly, continue to call ‘home,’” continued Sangmeister. “For twenty years now, we have found a way to work through our differences and protect this beautiful region we all love.”


The Laurel Outlook


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