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The Bulletin

Need rare earths? Try the Idaho-Montana border

Posting in Energy

The Bitterroot Mountains could provide sweet relief to the U.S. rare earth supply. Above, Trapper Peak.

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A couple centuries after Lewis and Clark crossed the Continental Divide in the Bitterroot Mountains on their way to the Pacific, another development of potential national significance is stirring in the same place.

Publicly held U.S. Rare Earth Inc. will soon start exploring its holding in the area for rare earth minerals, according to the website for Montana television station KPAX.

If successful, the expedition could be a step toward freeing the U.S. from China's control of the rare earth metals that are vital to the global economy and appear in products ranging from missiles to renewable energy gear to cars and iPods.

The KPAX report says that Lonoke, Ark.-based U.S. Rare Earths' holdings extend from north of Salmon, Idaho into the western fork of the Bitterroot.

U.S. Rare Earths' website identifies over 12,000 acres of rare earth mining claims the company holds in Idaho, Montana and Colorado, including "the Lemhi Pass Property in Lemhi County, Idaho and Beaverhead County Mont.," as well as in other nearby areas.

Lewis and Clark buffs will know the 7,373-foot Lemhi Pass in the Bitterroot range of the Rockies. The intrepid explorers stepped over the Continental Divide there in 1805, a key moment in the United States' push westward to the Pacific.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether U.S. Rare Earths can produce rare earth elements from the region and help loosen the 95 percent grip that China has on the rare earth market. When I last looked, the re-opening of a rare earth mine at Mountain Pass, Calif in February had so far done little to feed rare earths domestically, as mine operator Molycorp. was shipping its haul to China.

Lewis and Clark didn't get to the Northwest coast overnight. Nor will countries free themselves in a hurry from China's rare earth dominance. But it's good to see the trails are blazing.

Photo: Wikipedia

More rare earth pioneers on SmartPlanet:

— By on November 5, 2012, 9:49 PM PST

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure