Headwaters Campaign draws broad support

MineBoxBy Ann McCreary

As the U.S. Forest Service nears a decision on permitting exploratory drilling for copper in Mazama, the possibility of “full-scale mining” has prompted local business owners to come together in a campaign opposing any future mining.

“The plan is to do more than oppose exploratory drilling on Flagg Mountain. We would like a more long-term solution to protecting the valley from industrial mining,” said Bill Pope, co-owner of the Mazama Country Inn and a spokesman for the new Methow Headwaters Campaign.

He said about 70 businesses have joined the campaign that opposes plans by a Canadian mining company to explore for copper in the scenic upper valley.

The Methow Valley Ranger District is expected to issue a decision by “late winter or early spring” on an application to drill exploratory holes on Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest land near Flagg Mountain, said Laurie Dowie, special uses and minerals coordinator.

The application from Blue River Resources Ltd. of Vancouver, B.C., proposes to drill up to 15 holes, to a maximum depth of 980 feet, in day and night shifts, to determine if there are mineral resources worth extracting.

Pope has actively opposed the exploratory drilling since Blue River Resources submitted its application in 2013 to drill the test holes as part of its “Mazama Copper Project.” The proposed drill sites are located in forested foothills near the inn owned by Pope, who founded the “Protect Flagg Mountain” campaign in response to the proposed exploration.

Pope said Methow Headwaters Campaign aims to develop a broad coalition of business people with a larger vision for the Methow Valley.

“We’ve been looking at this not just being a NIMBY (not in my back yard) group that opposes the exploration, but to put together something that is more comprehensive protection for the valley,” Pope said.

The Methow Headwaters Campaign has received support from businesses representing outdoor recreation, agriculture, hospitality, real estate, health and construction, Pope said.

“The key thing we want to demonstrate is that this is not just an environmental or conservation issue, but it’s a business issue, an economic issue,” Pope said.

“The Methow Valley is in the midst of some of the Northwest’s most spectacular and iconic lands,” Pope said in an announcement of the campaign. “Highway 20, the North Cascades Scenic Highway, looks across at the proposed mine site as travelers enter the valley from the west,” he said.

“Businesses are concerned that an industrial-scale mine on Flagg Mountain, and the legacy it would leave, would threaten the long-term resilience of the Methow’s economy and the unique, treasured landscape upon which local businesses depend,” Pope said.

Widespread support

In addition to business owners, the Methow Headwaters Campaign also has support from the Methow Valley Citizens Council, the Wilderness Society, Conservation Northwest and the Okanogan Highlands Alliance, Pope said.

Among the supporters is Brian Charlton, general manager of Sun Mountain Lodge, the valley’s largest private employer.

“There are very few times I speak out publicly against things,” Charlton said. “This is one of the few things we felt really strongly about.”

Charlton said he witnessed first-hand the impacts of open-pit copper mining before moving to the Methow Valley.

“Having lived in Montana and having seen what happened in the Butte and Anaconda areas — the extended devastation — that is just something that stays with you,” Charlton said.

“The pristine quietness and beauty of this valley — we’re in a virtual paradise here. I hate to see anything come in that can have a devastating effect,” he said.

“I don’t know the economic effects it [a mine] would have. What effects do two years of fires have? I do know there are less brides booking in July and August than we have had in the past,” Charlton said.

Visitors who come to enjoy the Methow Valley’s sun, snow, streams, rivers, wildlife and rural community contribute millions of dollars to the local economy, Pope said.

“The upper Methow is also crucial to salmon recovery, and more than $100 million has been invested in restoration and conservation efforts,” he said.

“Full-scale mining has the potential to cause years of disruption to the area through increased heavy truck traffic and industrial activity, visual impacts and disruption of wildlife and their habitat,” Pope said.

“People come to the valley because they have a connection to the landscape and natural environment,” said Julie Muyllaert, co-owner of Methow Cycle and Sport in Winthrop and a member of the Methow Headwaters Campaign.

“We also know that people put economic value on the integrity of the natural environment. One of the things that is notable about the Methow Valley is that because of many people’s efforts and vision over the years, we been able to create and sustain the integrity of our natural systems and build this pretty remarkable outdoor recreation experience,” Muyllaert said.

“A mine — with increased traffic, noise pollution, light pollution, air pollution — would diminish and harm the integrity of what we’ve created here,” she said. “Not only would individuals experience the detrimental effects of that but I believe the community would and our economy would as well.”

Learn from history

Molly Patterson, owner of Glover Street Market in Twisp, said she comes from a family with a long history in mining, including a great-great-grandfather who in 1882 sold his claims on a mine that eventually became the massive Anaconda copper mine in Butte — now a toxic waste site.

Patterson said her family’s ties to mining have given her personal perspective on the adverse impacts of mining on people and their surroundings, and prompted her to support the Methow Headwaters Campaign.

“We have the great fortune to learn from our past and we know what kind of scars and damage mining leaves for future generations to clean up,” Patterson said.

“After all the profits are exhausted, the mining company packs up and leaves behind ravaged mountains that have been robbed of their precious jewels. This is the wrong time and the wrong place for mining. As a community we cannot allow it,” she said.

“I’m really tickled that there is a group fighting this,” said Dwight Filer, owner of Filer Plumbing in Twisp, and another business owner supporting the campaign.

He cited the recreational trail system that has been developed over many years and draws thousands of visitors each year to ski, bike and hike as “my model for economic development in the valley. We need development that is lasting and will stand the test of time, and is not just boom and bust,” he said.

“If they [Blue River Resources] find a rich vein they’ll push hard to mine it. And our antiquated mining laws are so favorable to mining companies that this could happen,” Filer said. “It could change the whole face of the valley overnight.”

Under the General Mining Act of 1872, the Forest Service does not have the authority to deny mineral claims holders the right to explore for and develop mineral resources on federal lands, but can set requirements for projects to meet federal and state environmental laws.

Pope said his motivation for initiating the Methow Headwaters Campaign “grew out of our frustration with the 1872 mining law and its blunt force application. It seems to be very one-sided — very favorable to mining companies. We all understand why it was originally enacted in 1872. It’s remarkable that it never got amended,” he said.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” he added. “We’re looking at a number of policy options.”

Blue River Resources, which has a subsidiary with a Wyoming address, holds an interest in the mineral rights on the Flagg Mountain land.

Application in process

The Forest Service has been processing the company’s application for exploratory drilling over the past two years, although the process has been delayed due to wildfires that diverted Forest Service staff from the project. Under an agreement with the Forest Service, Blue River Resources has contributed $23,000 to help pay staff costs to move the project forward.

The exploratory drilling is proposed as a short-term mineral exploration that would last less than a year, with no new road construction. Based on those criteria the project qualifies as “categorically excluded” from more detailed environmental analyses like an Environmental Assessment or an Environmental Impact Statement.

When environmental studies of the project are completed, Methow District Ranger Mike Liu is expected to sign a decision allowing the drilling to go ahead, within conditions set by the Forest Service to mitigate environmental impacts.

The Forest Service has stipulated that drilling could not begin until Aug. 1, to avoid impacting the nesting season of northern spotted owls that live in the area and are protected under federal law as a threatened species.

Drilling would have to end by Nov. 31, when Goat Creek Road, which provides access to the proposed drill sites, is closed and groomed as a snowmobile trail.

The proposed mineral exploration site lies within an area called “The Majestic Methow” by the National Forest Foundation, which selected it as one of 14 “Treasured Landscapes” in the nation. The National Forest Foundation is a nonprofit organization that helps fund forest restoration projects on Forest Service land.

The Flagg Mountain area been explored for potential mineral extraction by a number of other mining companies over the past 40 years, but no active mining has followed exploration.