If the Sterling Mining Company has its way, one of the continent’s largest underground mines could soon be dug beneath the Cabinet Mountains of northwestern Montana, marking the first time that large-scale mining would take place beneath a federal wilderness area. Last month, federal and state officials granted the company a permit to operate a silver and copper mine 900 feet below the surface of the earth. Although the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Forest Service say the permit is contingent upon the company’s adherence to strict environmental regulations, enviros have vowed to fight the proposal, saying it imperils wildlife and waterways — and sets a dangerous precedent. Ultimately, the courts may need to decide whether the 1964 Wilderness Act trumps the 1872 Mining Act.