By Ann McCreary

Wildfires have once again delayed completion of a U.S. Forest Service environmental study of a proposal to conduct exploratory drilling for copper on Forest Service land near Flagg Mountain in Mazama.

Forest Service staff have been busy dealing with summer wildfires and their aftermath, pushing the anticipated completion of a decision on the Mazama Copper Project to Nov. 30, said Laurie Dowie, special uses and mineral coordinator for the Methow Ranger District.

That means that work on the project, if it receives Forest Service permission to go forward, can’t begin on site until late next summer. Goat Creek Road, which provides access to the proposed drilling site, is closed on Nov. 30 for grooming as a snowmobile trail.

Drilling can’t begin until after Aug. 1, because the Flagg Mountain area is habitat to Northern spotted owls, protected as a threatened species under federal law. The owls’ nesting season extends until August and the birds can’t be disturbed during that critical time.

“We have most of the reports from specialists” examining impacts on groundwater, vegetation, wildlife, etc., Dowie said. The reports need to be completed and compiled.

Dowie said she does not know where Blue River Resources Ltd., the Canadian firm proposing the project, plans to acquire water that would be trucked up to the site during drilling. The Town of Winthrop turned down a request from the company earlier this year to purchase water from the town.

The company is currently working with regulatory agencies including the state Department of Ecology, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and National Marine Fisheries Service to obtain the necessary approvals for the proposed project, Dowie said.

Delayed by fires

The project’s environmental study was delayed last summer as well because Forest Service personnel working on it were diverted to work on the Carlton Complex Fire.

Blue River Resources first approached the Forest Service with the Mazama Copper Project proposal in 2013. The project would involve drilling up to 15 holes, up to 980 feet deep, to determine if there are mineral resources worth extracting in the Flagg Mountain area.

The proposal generated substantial public interest and almost 800 public comments last year that required analysis by the Forest Service.

In order to expedite the analysis of the project, Blue River Resources entered into a cost-sharing agreement with the Forest Service to pay for staff time on the project.

According to documents obtained by the Methow Valley News through a Freedom of Information Act request, Blue River Resources agreed to pay $23,091 for staff time involved in the study.

The exploratory drilling is proposed as a short-term mineral exploration that will last less than a year, with no new road construction. Based on those criteria, the project qualifies as “categorically excluded” from more detailed environmental review.

After analysis is complete, a decision memo will be issued by District Ranger Mike Liu.

When a project receives Forest Service approval under the categorical exclusion designation, there is not provision for administrative appeal of the decision, unlike an Environmental Assessment or Environmental Impact Statement. The only recourse for citizens who object to the decision would be to file a lawsuit.