Proposal would withdraw forest lands from exploration
By Ann McCreary
To fight possible development of a copper mine in Mazama, the newly launched Methow Headwaters Campaign will push for withdrawal of 340,000 acres of national forest land from future mineral exploration and mining.
More than 250 Methow Valley residents attended a kick-off event for the anti-mining campaign at the Winthrop Barn on Sunday afternoon (Feb. 14), during which campaign organizers described their strategy to block future mining in the scenic upper valley.
“I think this turnout shows how important this issue is to the Methow Valley and to the people who want to protect this place,” said Mazama resident Bill Pope, who helped launch the campaign last month.
Community engagement will be critical to the campaign’s success in persuading federal land managers to withdraw the land from future mining, said Pope.
“The campaign has developed this proposal and now we must sell it,” Pope said. “We need to show broad community support to encourage our federal agencies to carry this through.”
The proposal already has the support of 90 local business owners who signed a letter asking federal land managers to begin a process that would withdraw Flagg Mountain and surrounding national forest lands from future mineral exploration and development. The letter will be sent to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, the chief of the U.S. Forest Service and regional Forest Service officials.
The letter describes a local economy that is “dependent on the quality of our natural environment,” and states that environmental damage resulting from mining would “hurt our businesses and reduce the economic viability of our community as a whole.”
The withdrawal process is seen as the best chance of preventing the threat of “industrial-scale mining” near Flagg Mountain, Pope said. The 340,000 acres of federal land proposed to be withdrawn from future mining are in the upper Methow and Chewuch river drainages, he said.
The concern about mining in Mazama stems from an application filed in 2013 by Blue River Resources Ltd., a Vancouver-based mining company, to drill up to 15 exploratory holes on Forest Service land in the vicinity of Flagg Mountain to assess copper deposits in the area.
Blue River Resources has estimated the ore deposit at about 1 billion pounds of copper and other minerals, and wants to confirm the size and value through the exploratory drilling.
The Forest Service has been processing the drilling application over the past two years, despite delays caused by wildfires that diverted staff from the project. Methow District Ranger Mike Liu said Sunday he expects to issue a decision “pretty shortly” to permit the exploratory drilling to move forward.
The drilling proposal has generated substantial public interest. A public meeting about the project held by the Forest Service in May 2014 drew more than 100 citizens, and the Forest Service received more than 700 comments on the proposal, almost all in opposition, said Pope, owner of the Mazama Country Inn.
Under longstanding federal mining law, however, public opinion doesn’t play a role in determining whether a mining project on public land is approved, Pope told the standing-room only crowd on Sunday.
The General Mining Act of 1872 does not give the Forest Service authority to deny mineral claims holders the right to explore for and develop mineral rights on federal lands, although it does allow the agency to set requirements for projects to meet environmental laws.
“The problem is, we can wave our arms and shout our protests until we turn blue, but the 1872 mining law doesn’t see us or hear us. That law has remained unchanged and unamended for 144 years,” Pope said.
“It was enacted at a time when the West had not been fully settled and the government’s land was considered limitless. In essence, it gives priority on federal lands to mining over all other uses, regardless of the impact on those other uses.”
However, Pope said, “there is one tool that is available to eliminate the risk of industrial mining in the upper valley, and that is to make the upper Methow Valley off-limits to mining through what is called a ‘mineral withdrawal.’”
Some public lands, such as national parks and wilderness areas are among areas that are withdrawn from mining. The North Cascades Scenic Highway has also been withdrawn from mineral entry, Pope said.
The tool has been used to remove a variety of lands from future mining, including more than one million acres of federal land around the Grand Canyon National Park that were withdrawn from uranium exploration and mining in 2014, Pope said.
The withdrawal strategy would not guarantee that mining could not occur, because it leaves in place existing mineral claims, but it imposes requirements that would make future mining far less likely, according to campaign organizers.
The process to withdraw mineral entry would be initiated by the Forest Service as the principal land management agency, Pope said.
The proposal would go to the Secretary of the Interior, who would decide whether or not to initiate the withdrawal process by publishing a notice in the Federal Register. The notice of the proposed withdrawal would start a two-year period during which the designated lands are “segregated” from further mineral exploration while the proposal is under consideration by the Interior Secretary.
The Federal Register notice immediately closes the land to new mineral exploration and mining and initiates any required environmental analysis.
It also requires that any claimants with existing mining claims, like Blue River Resources, prove to the Department of Interior that their claims were valid as of the publication date.
To be “valid,” the claimant must prove that the mining operation will be profitable and worth the cost of extracting the mineral, Liu explained in an interview. The process of proving a valid claim, which would be required in order to begin mining, is complex and expensive, he said.
“The claimant has to demonstrate adequate mineral deposits that are economically feasible [to mine]. Copper prices would have to be high enough to warrant development of a mine,” Liu said.
It requires that the claim be proved valid — meaning economical based on copper prices and the cost of development and reclamation of the site — on the day it was segregated, Liu said.
“The mineral withdrawal doesn’t reverse anybody’s rights,” he said. “However, you’re going to have to prove you have a valid claim. It’s possible that if the claim is proved valid they can still develop it. But given today’s prices, that is highly unlikely.”
Pope said the price of copper is currently around $2 per pound, compared to $3.25 per pound in 2013 when Blue River Resources filed its application. In 2010 it was over $4.50 a pound, he said.
Based on the estimate of one billion pounds of copper, Pope said, the price fluctuations “represents a swing of about $2.5 billion in the gross value of that ore in just six years.”
The lower prices today could be “lucky” for the Methow Headwaters Campaign, if it is successful in persuading federal authorities to initiate the mineral withdrawal process quickly, Pope said.
The Methow Ranger District has stipulated that Blue River Resources could not begin exploratory drilling until after Aug. 1, to avoid disrupting the nesting season of northern spotted owls that live in the Flagg Mountain area and are protected as a threatened species.
If the campaign can move the withdrawal proposal forward before Aug. 1, it could force Blue River Resources to prove the claim’s validity — the financial viability of mining — based on the current low copper prices and information available from past mineral explorations in the area, Pope said.
“I believe the claim is judged on the information available at the time of the withdrawal. Although it would be an ambitious schedule, if we could manage to get the Secretary of the Interior to publish the ‘notice of segregation’ before Blue River Resources starts drilling, then presumably they would have to rely solely on past information to determine the extent and grade of the ore body,” he said.
Blue River Resources is acting through a U.S. subsidiary, which Pope described as “basically a closet in Lander, Wyoming, as far as I can tell.” It is the sixth company to pursue minerals exploration in the Flagg Mountain area since the 1970s.
Past explorations didn’t generate as much attention for a number of reasons, said Maggie Coon of Methow Valley Citizens Council, a local conservation organization that is participating in the Methow Headwaters Campaign.
“During the ’70s, when Quintana [Minerals Corporation] was doing its exploration, the focus was very much on the Aspen Ski Corp.’s proposal to build a ski resort on National Forest land, directly across the valley from Flagg Mountain,” Coon said.
“The mining issue never rose to the fore, in part because the drilling activity didn’t require the kind of public involvement that [Methow District Ranger] Mike Liu has offered,” she said,
“Even more important, as a community we’ve come a very long way in realizing that really important decisions can slip through the cracks if we don’t pay attention. And that it makes a huge difference when we get organized and speak out,” Coon said.
To persuade federal agencies to move forward with the mineral withdrawal, opponents of mining will need to demonstrate the “national significance” of the area that would be impacted, according to Liu.
Features of national significance, he said, can include the presence of threatened and endangered species like fish, spotted owls and gray wolves; proposed recovery of grizzly bears in the region; millions of dollars of salmon recovery projects in local watersheds; nearby national parks, scenic areas and wilderness; and two national scenic trails that traverse the area.
“It’s drawing that larger picture. It’s not one feature, but all these features,” Liu said.
The final determination on the withdrawal would be made by the Secretary of the Interior, and if approved, would remain in effect for 20 years, the maximum period allowed under the law. That period can be extended, and has in been in other cases, Pope said.
The mineral withdrawal would apply only to mineral exploration and “industrial-scale, hard rock mines” and would not impact grazing rights, “hobby mining” or other public uses on the federal lands, he said.
Representatives of The Wilderness Society and Conservation Northwest attended the meeting at The Barn in support of the Methow Headwaters Campaign. The campaign provided large maps of area proposed for withdrawal, as well as petitions, brochures and stickers.
Several business owners spoke to the crowd to begin the meeting, citing the Methow Valley’s natural beauty, environmental quality, recreation-based economy, and the threats posed by an open pit copper mine near the Methow River headwaters.
“The fact that we’re even talking about it seems inconceivable,” said Rick LeDuc, co-owner of the Mazama Country Store. “For a very small benefit to a very few people, we’d have to live with the results. We have to be prepared for a potential long, hard fight,” LeDuc said.
“The work I do in the valley is based around nature,” said Sam Lucy, a farmer and owner of Bluebird Grain Farms. “My family feels blessed to have carved a little niche here and grow high-quality food we sell here and around the country. For the future of our children this is very important.”
During comments from audience members, Bud Hover, a rancher and former head of the Washington Department of Agriculture, praised the idea of seeking the mineral withdrawal as “an excellent example of using the system to achieve what needs to happen.”
He said the valley’s “quality of life would cease to exist” if a mine were allowed to operate.
“In the last 35 years since the [Wagner] mill closed … this valley has built an economy on recreation. This project is antithetical to that,” Hover said.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘I can’t imagine a copper mine in the Methow Valley,’” said Coon. “I can. I’ve also heard people say, ‘I wonder if Blue River knows who they’re up against.’ I say they are about to find out.”