Map courtesy Senator Patty Murray’s office The 340,079-acre area proposed for mineral withdrawal under legislation introduced last week by Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.

Map courtesy Senator Patty Murray’s office
The 340,079-acre area proposed for mineral withdrawal under legislation introduced last week by Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.

Legislation introduced in response to proposed exploration at Flagg Mountain

By Ann McCreary

A campaign to protect the upper Methow Valley from future mining got a boost last week when Washington’s senators introduced legislation aimed at making the area off-limits to mining development.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) introduced a bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), that seeks to protect 340,079 acres of National Forest lands in the upper Methow River drainage from potential development of a large-scale copper mine.

Called the “Methow Headwaters Protection Act of 2016,” the legislation would restrict potential mining through a “mineral withdrawal,” which would remove the protected area from future mineral exploration and mining.

“It is clear that the Methow Valley is a source of pride and is central to the region’s economic and environmental well-being,” Murray said in a prepared statement.

“I am proud to work with the community to protect this environmentally sensitive area of the Methow River valley, ensure critical federal investments in salmon recovery are protected, and continue to support the valley’s thriving outdoor recreation economy.”

“Water issues in the Methow Valley are paramount,” said Cantwell. “That is why copper mining that could impact rivers and salmon runs is something we can’t risk.”

The legislation was welcomed by leaders of the Methow Headwaters Campaign, which was launched in February to fight the prospect of future copper mining in the Mazama area.

The campaign has gained the support of 135 local Methow Valley businesses, as well as residents, civic leaders and local organizations concerned about the environmental and economic impacts that mining would have on the valley.

“This legislation is a major milestone,” said Maggie Coon, director of the Methow Valley Citizens Council, a local conservation organization involved in the campaign.

“Since the launch of the campaign we’ve been working closely with our Senate delegation,” Coon said. ‘They really wanted to know there was the kind of overwhelming constituent support for this [campaign], and we were able to demonstrate that.”

Exploratory request

Concern about mining was prompted by an application from Blue River Resources Ltd, a Vancouver, B.C.-based mining company, for permission to drill exploratory holes to assess copper deposits on Forest Service land in the vicinity of Flagg Mountain.

The application, filed in 2013, is still being processed by the Forest Service. Methow District Ranger Mike Liu said a decision to permit the exploratory drilling is likely to be issued by the end of June.

Under longstanding federal mining laws, 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 to mitigate potential environmental impacts.

Blue River Resources, acting through a U.S. subsidiary in Wyoming, describes itself as a “mineral exploration and development company” with an option to “earn a 100 percent interest in the Mazama project.”

The Methow Headwaters Campaign has been pursuing another approach to preventing future mining in Mazama through an administrative mineral withdrawal.

The campaign sent a letter, signed by 90 local business owners, to the Department of the Interior and U.S. Forest Service in February requesting that those agencies use their administrative authority withdraw the 340,000 acres from future mineral exploration and mining.

“The legislation is another approach. We will continue to pursue both,” said Coon. “The fact that our two senators were willing to step up in this leadership way sends an important message, and will provide a boost for an effort for an administrative withdrawal.”

Administrative withdrawal would protect the land for 20 years; legislative withdrawal would provide permanent protection.

Liu said the introduction of legislation and the request for administrative withdrawal of the land does not affect the Methow Ranger District’s permitting process for the exploratory drilling. Blue River Resources has proposed to drill up to 15 test holes, about 2 inches in diameter and up to a maximum depth of 980 feet, to determine if there are minerals worth extracting.

Only a couple of steps are left to be completed before Liu signs the decision on the exploratory drilling, he said last week. A cultural report must be reviewed by tribal representatives, and a wetlands report needs to be reviewed and incorporated into the Forest Service’s environmental analysis.

Other precedents

Because the exploratory drilling is proposed as a short-term project with no new road construction, it is considered “categorically excluded” from more detailed environmental studies like an Environmental Assessment or an Environmental Impact Statement.

If the Forest Service grants permission, exploratory drilling could begin as early as August. Because the area may provide habitat for Northern spotted owls, a federally protected species, the Forest Service said drilling would not be allowed before Aug. 1 to avoid disrupting the birds’ nesting season.

Withdrawing land from mineral exploration and mining through administrative or legislative approaches has been done in a number of other cases, Coon said.

She cited examples including: Legislative withdrawal of 380,000 acres of the North Fork of the Flathead River in Montana in 2014; 405,000 acres of the Rocky Mountain Front — administrative withdrawal for 20 years followed by permanent withdrawal through legislation in 2006; administrative withdrawal of 1 million acres near the Grand Canyon for 20 years; and Rogue River-Siskyou/Kalmiopsis — administrative withdrawal of 100,000 acres in Oregon with legislation pending.

Existing valid rights would remain in place even if lands were withdrawn either administratively or legislatively.

However, for existing rights to be considered “valid,” a claimant must prove that the mining operation would be profitable and worth the cost of extracting the minerals based on mineral prices and information available at the time the administrative withdrawal is published in the Federal Register, or when legislation is signed into law, Coon said. Copper prices today are about 60 percent lower today than they were in 2013 when Blue River Resources applied for permission to drill.

The area around Flagg Mountain has been explored for mineral deposits by several other companies over the past 40 years, but no mining has taken place.