Local public meeting likely in June

By Ann McCreary

A new public comment period and a public meeting are planned for a proposal to withdraw more than 340,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land in the upper Methow Valley from future mining.

The dates are not yet set, but the comment period is expected to end in June, and a public meeting will likely be held that month in Winthrop, said Michael Campbell, a public affairs officer with the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Portland, Oregon.

The comment period and public meeting will facilitate public input regarding a proposal to make 340,047 acres of land at the headwaters of the Methow River off limits to any new mineral exploration or mining for up to 20 years.

Called a “mineral withdrawal,” the process was initiated by the BLM last December as a result of a local campaign to protect the area from future mining.

The first step of the withdrawal is called “segregation,” a two-year period during which the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Interior evaluate whether to extend the withdrawal period for up to 20 years.

A 90-day comment period on the proposed mineral withdrawal began at the end of December and ended March 30. However, a required public meeting on the issue was never held before the comment period ended, Campbell said.

He said the transition from the Obama administration to the Trump administration resulted in some uncertainty for the agencies involved in the proposed mineral withdrawal.

“I won’t speak for the Forest Service, but it was a little unclear for the BLM what the next step was in the process on the pending withdrawal,” Campbell said.

“Because of that, and given the level of media interest and public interest in this, and the fact that there’s an outstanding interest in the Washington [congressional] delegation, we will reopen the comment period that originally expired in March,” he said.

The details of the new comment period and public meeting will be included in a notice to be published in the Federal Register “in a couple of weeks,” Campbell said.

“The Federal Register notice would effectively extend the public comment period,” and provide information about the required public meeting, he said.

He said mineral specialists from BLM and officials with the U.S. Forest Service would attend the public meeting. “We are looking at a location in Winthrop,” Campbell said.

“We’re pleased things are moving forward,” said Maggie Coon of Twisp, a leader of the Methow Headwaters Campaign, which has led the effort to protect the upper valley from potential mining.

“Of course the comment period is just the first of several steps which have to happen before the administrative withdrawal is finalized. The Methow Headwaters Campaign will be encouraging continued action to make that happen,” Coon said.

The new comment period and public meeting would be followed by actions to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, Campbell said.

“It would likely be an environmental assessment looking at the efficacy of the withdrawal proposal. That would also be available for public comment,” he said.

“That’s the package that would go the to Secretary of Interior’s office” for a decision on the mineral withdrawal, Campbell said. “We are looking at a little bit of time” for the process to be completed, he said.

Legislative approach

Withdrawing the land for up to 20 years through administrative action by the Secretary of Interior is one way to protect the area from mining, but a bill passed by the U.S. Congress could provide permanent protection, and that course is also being pursued.

A bill called the Methow Headwaters Protection Act, first introduced in 2016, was reintroduced this year by Washington’s senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, both Democrats.

The bill, S. 566, passed out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in March, and the next step would be action on the floor of the Senate.

The legislation calls for the permanent withdrawal of the 340,047 acres from future mining.

Whether mineral withdrawal is accomplished through an administrative decision or through legislation, the withdrawal would not prohibit ongoing or future mining exploration or extraction on valid, pre-existing mining claims.

The campaign to protect the Forest Service land in the upper Methow Valley was launched in 2016 in response to plans by a Canadian company, Blue River Resources Ltd., to conduct exploratory drilling to assess copper deposits on Flagg Mountain near Mazama.

Campaign leaders warned that completion of the exploratory drilling could open the door to future development of large-scale, open-pit mining operations in the scenic upper Methow Valley, threatening the valley’s recreational economy and natural resources.

The campaign has drawn support from more than 135 businesses, organizations, tribes and community groups, as well as 2,000 individuals who signed on in support of the campaign.