Map courtesy of Methow Headwaters Campaign About 340,000 acres of national forest lands would be protected from mineral exploration and mining in the future.

Map courtesy of Methow Headwaters Campaign
Click map to view a larger version.

By Ann McCreary

The U.S. Forest Service plans to take immediate action to protect more than 340,000 acres of federal land at the upper end of the Methow Valley from future mining operations, a Forest Service official said Thursday (Sept. 22) in Washington, D.C.

Testifying before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Leslie Weldon, deputy chief of the Forest Service, said “our goal is to begin working…on the process for an administrative withdrawal” of the land, which would prevent new mineral exploration and mining for up to 20 years.

Weldon testified in favor of legislation introduced in May by Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA). The “Methow Headwaters Protection Act of 2016” (S. 2991) would permanently withdraw 340,079 acres of Forest Service land in and around the upper valley from mining.

“The Department of Agriculture supports S. 2991 and believes a mineral withdrawal is the best path toward mitigating any impact to the ecological, cultural and economic significance of the Methow Valley,” Weldon said.

She said the Forest Service would work with the Bureau of Land Management to begin the process for an administrative withdrawal, which would have the effect of making that land off-limits to new mining activities.

“In light of us beginning this process, the likelihood of us approving any additional explorations is low. We need to make sure we are focusing on the long-term withdrawal process,” Weldon said.

The news of the Forest Service’s support of the legislation and the agency’s decision to move forward on an administrative withdrawal was welcomed by the Methow Headwaters campaign, a local organization formed earlier this year to fight the possibility of future copper mining in the upper Methow Valley.

“We…appreciate the U.S. Forest Service’s support of the bill and look forward to the agency immediately initiating the withdrawal process in support of the exceptional legislative work of Senators Murray and Cantwell, and in recognition of the overwhelming community support in the Methow Valley for action now,” said Maggie Coon, a leader of the Methow Headwaters campaign.

The campaign was launched in response to an application from a Canadian mining company to drill exploratory holes on Forest Service land near Flagg Mountain in Mazama to determine whether there are copper deposits worth mining. The Methow Headwaters campaign, supported by about 130 local businesses, has advocated with federal agencies and elected officials for withdrawal of the upper valley from mining.

The Methow Ranger District has been processing the drilling application since it was submitted in 2013 by Vancouver-based Blue River Resources, LLC.

But the district will put the application on hold following the Forest Service’s announcement that it would begin the process of withdrawing the land, said District Ranger Mike Liu.

“It’s certainly the intent of the agency to start the withdrawal process in aide of the legislation,” Liu said. “What that means for us is that until we move through…that whole (withdrawal) process we wouldn’t be making a decision” on whether to permit the exploratory drilling, Liu said.

The administrative withdrawal process includes several steps, including publication of a “segregation notice” in the Federal Register, an environmental analysis of the action, and public input, according to information from the Forest Service.

Existing valid mineral claims remain in place even if lands are withdrawn. For an existing claim to be considered valid, a claimant must prove that mining operations would be profitable and worth the cost of extracting the minerals as of the date of the withdrawal, according to the Forest Service.

Liu said Blue River Resources was informed of the Forest Service’s decision to pursue withdrawal in a conference call on Thursday morning, after Weldon’s testimony before the Senate committee.

“Obviously they were disappointed,” Liu said. “It was the first time they officially heard that as an agency we’re moving forward in aide of the legislative withdrawal.”

Blue River Resources president Griffin Jones did not respond to phone messages from the Methow Valley News on Thursday.

While the federal agencies move forward on the administrative withdrawal, the next step for the Methow Headwaters Protection Act legislation is a full vote in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which will move it to the Senate if it passes in committee, according to Murray’s office.

“Our bill would withdraw from future mining, subject to valid existing rights, 340,000 acres of national forest lands that are prime habitat for salmon, spotted owl, lynx and grizzly bear,” Cantwell said in her opening statement before the committee Thursday.

“This bill is about two things – clean water and keeping an amazing place the way it is.”

A copper mine near Mazama would jeopardize more than $100 million invested in salmon recovery and wildlife restoration in the Methow Valley, as well as more than $150 million brought to Okanogan County annually by tourism to the valley, Cantwell said.

“This area has had lots of discussions over the last 40 years about its future. It turned down the idea of being a destination ski resort so the rural nature of the area could continue,” Cantwell said.

The Methow Valley has become a mecca for outdoor recreation, she said. “This is not the place to develop a copper mine. And yet it is also a stark reminder that the Mining Law of 1872 is wildly outdated.”

Under the longstanding mining law, 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.