Colville Reservation tribes will meet with U.S. Forest Service

By Ann McCreary

A decision on whether to permit exploratory drilling for copper on U.S. Forest Service land near Mazama has been delayed due to concerns expressed by the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

Mike Liu, Methow Valley District ranger, has previously said he expected to make a decision this summer on an application to drill exploratory holes near Flagg Mountain. However, Liu said this week he would hold off on a decision until he meets with representatives of the tribes.

“The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation have expressed interest and concern regarding the exploratory drilling, so it has delayed the decision,” Liu said Sunday (July 31).

“I will be meeting with them this coming week to better understand their concerns. At this point, the beginning of September would be the earliest I would foresee a decision. A permit would come after that,” Liu said.

The proposed drilling and potential for future mining also concerns Twisp Town Council members, who passed a resolution last week calling for withdrawal of federal lands in the upper valley from future exploration and mining.

The headwaters of the Methow River is many miles away from Twisp, but Twisp officials are concerned that mining in the upper part of the valley could have dire consequences for the economy and lifestyle of their town, as well as the entire valley.

Expressing that concern, the Twisp council approved a resolution last week calling for withdrawal of land at the headwaters of the Methow River from future mining “for the health, vitality and well being of … the greater Methow Valley community, and for future generations.”

Council member Bob Lloyd cast the only vote against the resolution, saying he favored “utilization” of the Methow Valley’s natural resources.

Mayor Soo Ing-Moody introduced the resolution, citing the “potential for adverse and irreversible effects” of mining on water quality and the valley’s economy.

“There is a legal obligation by the town to ensure water is protected for our citizens. That is what propelled me to look at this,” Ing-Moody said.

Federal actions requested

The resolution asks the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and Congress to use their authority to withdraw federal lands in the upper portion of the valley from future mining exploration or mineral withdrawal.

Twisp’s resolution is similar to a formal request for a mineral withdrawal filed earlier this year by the Methow Headwaters campaign, a local organization formed in response to a proposal by a Canadian mining company to drill exploratory holes for copper on U.S. Forest Service land near Flagg Mountain in Mazama.

The Methow Headwaters campaign asked the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service to use their administrative authority to withdraw 340,000 acres of national forest lands from exploration and mining. The campaign cites potential damage to the environment and economy of the Methow Valley if mining were allowed to take place.

The resolution approved by the Twisp council on July 26 cites the town’s “duty to provide clean water to its citizens under Washington state law” and says that “source water protection is an obligation of the town.”

It goes on to state: “The Methow Valley’s pristine rivers are a key factor to the town and the Methow Valley’s economy, as ranchers, farmers, recreationists and small business owners are all dependent upon a stable and clean source of water.

“The Town Council acknowledges that polluted waters and disturbed land from large commercial mining would pose negative impacts on fish and wildlife and threaten the very foundation of the many established industries of which our local economy is comprised.”

Lloyd said he opposed the resolution because “I think natural resources are an important part of the Methow Valley — and utilization of them. I’m not certain technology won’t advance to a point they could be mined.

“As far as river waters, we need to tell the Forest Service they need to do a better job of forest management so that they don’t all burn up,” Lloyd said.

Ing-Moody said the resolution “isn’t meant to be a blanket statement” about mineral extraction, but “hones in on our position with issues of clean water and the economy, and the potential effect of it [mining] on our established industries.”

The resolution calls for removing the federal land at the Methow River headwaters from mineral exploration or mining for up to 20 years, as allowed by federal mining law, said council member Hans Smith.

Senatorial support

The effort to withdraw those lands from potential mining has also received support from Washington’s two senators.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) introduced a bill in June, 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 mineral withdrawal, like the administrative approach sought by the Methow Headwaters campaign.

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

However, for existing rights to qualify as “valid,” a claimant must prove that the mining operation would be profitable and worth the cost of extracting the minerals as of the date the land is withdrawn, based on current mineral prices and available information, according to Forest Service officials.

The application to conduct exploratory drilling near Flagg Mountain was filed in 2013 by Blue River Resources LLC, a Vancouver, B.C.-based mining company. The exploration would be done to assess whether copper deposits are sufficient to warrant extraction.

The permit under consideration only applies to the exploratory drilling. An application to conduct mining would require extensive environmental analysis and public involvement.

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, has proposed to drill up to 15 test holes, about 2 inches in diameter and up to a maximum depth of 980 feet, to assess copper deposits.

Blue River describes itself as a “mineral exploration and development company” with an option to “earn a 100 percent interest in the Mazama project.”

The area around Flagg Mountain has been of interest to mining companies for decades, and several companies have conducted exploratory drilling over the past 40 years, although none have ever attempted to mine there.