Largest platinum mine will make big changes in Big Timber

Montana State Roundup

Published July 1, 1991  | July 1991 issue

The largest platinum and palladium mine in the Western hemisphere is expected to bring considerable growth and change to Big Timber, about 80 miles west of Billings.

When the mine reaches full production in about its sixth year, it is expected to employ nearly 600 people. But officials guess that as many as 1,200 new residents will move into Sweet Grass County, most to Big Timber—current population 1,550.

But it's not just mine workers who will increase the population. According to Carol Ferguson, administrative officer for the state's Hard Rock Impact Board, "If you have a large influx of primary workers, you also generate a secondary population, such as more teachers, law enforcement personnel, etc."

Growth will be gradual, however. The Stillwater Mining Co., the mine's operator, has filed for a permit and is scheduled to begin exploration by early next year. As many as 150 workers could be involved in the three- month exploration phase, but few will likely move to Big Timber for that short period.

Nonetheless, the town may not even be ready for the exploration phase workers, says Gene Langhus, Big Timber city clerk and city/county planner. Although there are areas set aside for development in and adjacent to the city, Langhus says the roads, water and sewers will need major updating to handle increased demands. Housing may be a problem, too, Langhus adds.

To soften the impact on the community, Big Timber officials are already working with Stillwater, the county and the state through the Impact Board to put some planning mechanisms in place. Some of the initial issues to be addressed revolve around identifying growth patterns and interim zoning and infrastructure needs of the mining company. "These are problems, but they're nice problems," Langhus says. "We've got resources to work with and new people in the community."

In addition, the mine is predicted to produce ore for about 27 years, according to Bob Winegar, program supervisor at the Montana Department of State Lands. That is considerably longer than the three to 15 years typical of most mines, he adds.

Furthermore, the taxable valuation of the mine is shared between the county and town and school districts. "That's the bottom line," Langhus says. Currently in Sweet Grass County the taxable valuation is $7 million; predictions are that after three years of mine operations, the valuation will be $10 million and by year six, $15 million.

Those extra funds may help Big Timber support the demands of an increased population, but Langhus echoes some of the ambivalence expressed by local residents about the changes that will take place. "We may not know our little community that we all love when we're finished. But then we may not have that little community we know and love if we don't change."

Kathy Cobb