BOZEMAN — In 1989, Crown Butte Mines put in a bid to build a gold mine in the mountains just northeast of Yellowstone National Park, near Cooke City. Environmentalists feared that toxic mine runoff would harm nearby rivers and streams and that the mine would irrevocably damage Yellowstone.
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, under the leadership of Mike Clark, led opposition to the proposed New World Mine. The effort drew national attention and a visit to the mine site from then-President Bill Clinton. Ultimately, in 1996, Clinton arranged a federal buyout of the company’s interest in the mine — a deal Clark has been widely credited for brokering.
Now Clark has given his notes on that deal — as well as more than 40 years’ worth of other notes, letters, photographs and documents pertaining to his career as an activist and environmental leader — to Montana State University Library’s Special Collections. The archive of materials will soon be available to the public for viewing and research.
“We are proud to host this chronicle of an influential activist from our community,” said Kenning Arlitsch, dean of the MSU Library. “Mike Clark’s archive helps tell the environmental and political history of the West, and it will be available for anyone to view.”
MSU archivist Kim Scott said the acquisition is notable because it adds an important voice to MSU’s collections related to Yellowstone — an area in which it specializes.
Beyond that, Clark’s collection is also valued for its unusually long span, Scott said.
“This collection includes a combination of daybooks, random thoughts and diaries dating back as far as the 1970s that give a personal take on this remarkable career of his, as well as interactions with people as he led or participated in these environmental or social justice movements,” Scott said. “It is rare to find a collection that has a continuous thread of material that allows researchers to understand the creator’s daily activity for that span of time.”
Clark, who lives in Bozeman, said he anticipates that the documents pertaining to the New World Mine controversy near Yellowstone may spark the most interest. But what might surprise people about his papers is that they actually look beyond environmental activism to a range of movements, Clark said.
“I’ve spent most of my life dealing with social movements, whether that is racism or poverty or the environmental movement,” Clark said. “I believe that social movements give people a voice and a way of communicating that they don’t ordinarily have.”
Furthermore, he said, he views his life as different from the lives of most conservationists.
“I’ve worked on poverty issues, race issues, anti-war stuff,” he said. “Fundamentally, I’m not a conservationist; I’m an activist. I’m a person who likes democracy. When I look back over the years, the major decisions I’ve made about where to work and what jobs to pursue are not so much about conservation but about how government functions and how to maintain democracy.”
Clark, 72, grew up in Appalachia, on an isolated mountain farm in western North Carolina. He was among the first in his family to attend college and graduated from Berea College in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in English.
He began working as a photojournalist for a weekly newspaper in eastern Kentucky, the Mountain Eagle, and as an educator and organizer — and, later, president — at Highlander Center, a school for activists in Tennessee.
Then, in the early 1980s, he accepted a position based in Helena at the Northern Lights Institute, a regional research center operating in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. In the mid-1980s, he moved to Colorado to work as an independent consultant to numerous grassroots organizations and private foundations throughout the West, and then later to Washington, D.C., where he served as president of the Environmental Policy Institute, the nation’s first professional environmental lobby firm. In the late 1980s, he was named president of the global environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth U.S. Several other positions in Washington, D.C., followed, and then, in 1994, he accepted a position as executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
Clark said he had fallen in love with Montana when he first came to the state in the 1980s, and so he jumped at the job with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
“(The job) was a way for me to come back to the region and work on issues that I thought were really important,” Clark said. “I regard (the Yellowstone) region as the most diverse and wild area left in the lower 48. ... I’m a small-town person and I like dealing with land issues. For me, it was a dream come true.”
During his first six years at the helm of the environmental advocacy group, the organization’s budget more than doubled, and the coalition expanded its capacity to work on issues affecting private and public lands within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Clark stepped down as leader of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in 2001 to pursue other projects in the region, including an effort to preserve ranchlands in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, work on water management through Trout Unlimited and private consulting projects. In 2009 and 2014, he fulfilled four- and five-month appointments as interim executive director of Greenpeace USA, and he returned, from 2009-2013, for a second stint as executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. Clark is currently working as a consultant and on several book projects.
Of the New World Mine controversy, Clark is quick to note that he was just one of thousands of people involved in opposing the mine, and he attributes the successful resolution to collaborative efforts.
“The deal worked because we had this amazing coalition of people,” Clark said. “I just happened to be the leader and got some public credit.”
Clark said he chose to donate his materials to MSU after attending an event related to the Ivan Doig Archive, which MSU acquired in 2015.
“I actually had conversations with my alma mater back in Kentucky and a couple of other institutions around the West about my collection, but I went to one of the Doig (Archive) events and was so impressed by how MSU handled the Doig collection. I immediately looked at Kim (Scott) and said ‘hey, take my stuff.’”
Scott said MSU Library Special Collections’ staff is currently processing Clark’s materials, and a comprehensive inventory of those materials will be available in June.
The MSU Library’s Special Collections and Archives has more than 800 active collections. It specializes in collections related to Montana agriculture and ranching, Montana engineering and architecture, Montana history, MSU history, Native Americans in Montana, prominent Montanans, trout and salmonids, U.S. Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, and Yellowstone National Park and the Yellowstone ecosystem. More information is available online at https://www.lib.montana.edu/archives/.