Map courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service
The area being considered for withdrawal is marked in red.

Federal action would protect upper valley from future mining

By Ann McCreary

The public is invited to submit comments during the next month on a proposal that would protect more than 340,000 acres of federal land in the upper Methow Valley from mining.

The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest is beginning an environmental analysis of a proposed mineral withdrawal, a process that would remove the land from future mining activities for 20 years.

During the first phase of the analysis, called scoping, the U.S. Forest Service is asking for comments to identify major issues and impacts that will be important in decision-making on the proposal and will need to be addressed in an environmental assessment. Comments will be accepted until Nov. 6.

The announcement of the 30-day comment period on Oct. 5 was welcomed by the Methow Headwaters Campaign, a local grassroots effort launched last year to rally public support for protecting the Forest Service land in the upper valley. The campaign began in response to a proposal by a Canadian-based mining company to conduct exploratory drilling for copper on Flagg Mountain near Mazama.

“We are very pleased that the Forest Service is moving forward,” said Maggie Coon of the Methow Headwaters Campaign. “This a very key part of the withdrawal process and will give everyone a chance to express why it’s so important to the community. Our focus at this point is to encourage people to comment.”

The Methow Headwaters Campaign was successful in persuading Washington’s senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, both Democrats, to introduce legislation called the “Methow Headwaters Protection Act of 2017” that would withdraw 340,079 acres in the upper valley permanently from mining. The legislation was first introduced in 2016, and reintroduced this year.

The Forest Service’s proposed 20-year withdrawal of those lands from mining “is in support of legislation introduced … for a permanent withdrawal,” said Michael Williams, Okanogan-Wenatchee forest supervisor in an announcement of the comment period.

The Forest Service withdrawal would “preclude new mining claims and mineral or geothermal leasing in the Methow watershed while Congress considers the legislation enacting a permanent withdrawal … under federal mining law” and would “protect the value of ecological and recreational resources of the Methow Valley,” Williams said.

“Recreation accounts for a substantial share of the Methow Valley community’s economy, while the watershed provides habitat for several threatened and endangered species,” he said. The land proposed for withdrawal is in the Methow Valley Ranger District.

The Forest Service land proposed for protection is currently “segregated” for a period of two years to allow the Forest Service to conduct the withdrawal analysis. Segregation is a separate step in the process and was initiated Dec. 30, 2016. A separate comment period for that process remains open until a required public meeting is held.

Withdrawal may not prevent development of some existing mining claims that have an approved plan of operations if a federal minerals examiner determines that a valuable mineral deposit existed at the time of the segregation.

The Forest Service plans to complete the environmental analysis over the winter. A final analysis will be submitted for review to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency that oversees mining on federal lands. Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and BLM officials will then sign a recommendation for the regional forester and BLM state director. Completion of the environmental analysis and recommendation are expected in summer 2018.

Comments can be submitted electronically at www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=52593. Written comments may be sent to Michael R. Williams, Forest Supervisor, c/o Amanda Velasquez, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, 215 Melody Lane, Wenatchee, WA 98801.