Cite potential harm to environment, cultural traditions

By Ann McCreary

Members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation have expressed concern about the potential for future mining in the upper Methow Valley, and the harm it could cause natural resources, as well as the tribes’ cultural and spiritual connections to that land.

Tribal members brought those concerns to a meeting last week with U.S. Forest Service officials at tribal offices in Nespelem, said Methow District Ranger Mike Liu.

 Liu and other Forest Service officials met with members of the tribes’ natural resources committee in response to recent correspondence from the Confederated Tribes.

The Colville tribes have communicated their opposition to a proposal to drill exploratory holes to evaluate copper deposits on Forest Service land on Flagg Mountain in Mazama.

An application by a Canadian-based mining company to conduct the exploratory drilling is being studied by the Methow Valley Ranger District.

“Our meeting with the Colville tribes was very cordial and they were clear in their opposition to any industrial scale mining in the area,” Liu said. “For them, the exploratory drilling and potential mining are connected.”

At the meeting, tribal members expressed concerns that mining would adversely affect not only natural resources, but also “spiritual values” of the land, Liu said. “That area holds spiritual significance,” he said.

Tribal members did not provide specific information about the spiritual significance of the upper Methow Valley, but the meeting might not have been conducive to sharing that information, Liu said.

To better identify those concerns, the archaeologist from the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Powys Gadd, will meet with the archeologist of the Colville tribes, Liu said.

“Certain tribes tend to hold their cultural and traditional legacies closer than others. Out of respect for their privacy we are having our archeologist meet with their archeologist,” Liu said Monday.

“When it comes to more spiritual matters, only the tribe can tell us how the proposed activity might affect those values, so having that discussion (will) help us better understand if … there is a way to mitigate potential effects from the activity,” Liu said.

The Confederated Tribes include members of the Methow, Okanogan, Arrow Lakes, Sanpoil, Colville, Nespelem, Chelan, Entiat, Moses-Columbia, Wenatchi, Nez Perce and Palus tribes.

Environmental study

The Forest Service has been conducting an environmental study of the drilling application, submitted by Blue River Resources Ltd. in 2013. The study evaluates a wide range of potential impacts including water quality, wetlands, threatened or endangered species, and historical or cultural sites, Liu said.

The study of the proposed project also “looked at cultural properties and traditional uses, such as gathering traditional plants,” Liu said. “We’re required to analyze how the proposal will affect not just natural resources, but from the human standpoint, cultural resources,” he said.

“The less tangible spiritual values are newer to the discussion,” Liu said. “It’s harder for us as an agency to respond to. The archeologist will have that discussion and see if she can gain any more insight or information.”

Gadd will meet with the archeologist for the tribes to determine if there is a way “to either minimize or mitigate their concerns,” Liu said.

“If we’re unable to get from the tribes specifics that would help us determine how the project or proposed action impacts their spiritual needs or concerns,” the Forest Service would “document that we attempted to find some resolution and address their concern,” Liu said.

The discussions with the Colville tribes have further delayed completion of the analysis, which has already been set back significantly due to wildfires of the past two summers that diverted Forest Service staff from other work.

Earlier this year, Liu said he expected that the study would be completed and he would issue a decision on the drilling application this summer. But he said this week that a decision is not likely until September “and that may be optimistic.”

That leaves limited time for Blue River Resources to conduct drilling this year, if the company decided to begin work. Drilling would have to end at the end of November because Goat Creek Road, which provides access to the proposed drill sites, is closed and groomed as a snowmobile trail after that date.

“It seems to me their operating season for this year would be pretty short,” Liu said. However, he added, the company could decide to drill only some of the 15 holes proposed in the project.

“The potential is still there. Realistically, with every week that goes by the likelihood decreases” that work will begin this year, Liu said.

Opposition campaign

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.

Because the Flagg Mountain exploratory drilling project is a short-term mineral exploration (lasting less than a year) and proposes no new road construction, it qualifies as “categorically exempt” from a more detailed environmental analysis like an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement.

A campaign that was launched earlier this year to oppose possible copper mining in the upper valley, called the Methow Headwaters Campaign, is seeking to withdraw 340,000 acres of federal land from future mineral exploration and extraction.

Earlier this year campaign organizers sent a letter, signed by 90 local business owners, to the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service requesting they use their administrative authority to withdraw the area, which includes Flagg Mountain.

The campaign also got support from Washington’s two senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, who have co-sponsored legislation with the same intent.

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

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 current mineral prices and available information at the time of withdrawal.

Blue River Resources, based in Vancouver, B.C., and operating out of 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.”