Urges federal agencies to act on protection against future mining

By Ann McCreary

Several key steps must be accomplished in the next 10 months if 342,079 acres of Forest Service land at the headwaters of the Methow River is to gain protection from future mining.

The Methow Headwaters campaign, a local grassroots organization, has worked for the past two years to push for government approval of a mineral withdrawal, which would make the protected area in the upper valley above Mazama off-limits to mineral exploration or mining for up to 20 years.

The headwaters protection effort got an assist last week when Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican whose 4th Congressional District includes the Methow Valley, urged swift action to move the process forward.

Two federal agencies — Agriculture and Interior — play primary roles in the mineral withdrawal. In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Newhouse expressed support for the withdrawal and requested that the federal agencies act quickly to complete an environmental review process that is currently underway.

“The proposed withdrawal is entirely consistent with Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture initiatives to create a conservation stewardship legacy, promote agriculture and rural prosperity, and to be a good neighbor,” Newhouse wrote in the Feb. 28 letter to Perdue and Zinke.

“I wholeheartedly support your commitments to build robust, sustainable communities for generations to come, and I believe the Methow Headwaters mineral withdrawal will aid this effort in Central Washington,” he said.

“In a county that embraces resource development and has a long history of mining, it is widely recognized that this specific proposal for the Methow Valley has merit,” Newhouse added.

His letter urged the agencies involved in the withdrawal process to hold required public meetings, complete environmental reviews and provide final recommendations by the end of this year.

The effort to protect the upper Methow Valley watershed has gained broad, bipartisan support from elected representatives at the national and state level. Washington’s Democratic senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, co-sponsored legislation in both 2016 and 2017 that proposes permanent withdrawal of the Methow headwaters from mining, while agency withdrawal is limited to 20 years.

Grateful for support

The legislation, called the Methow Headwaters Protection Act, was passed by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last year and is awaiting passage by the full Senate.

Support from Newhouse, who has a 1 percent lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters, which measures Congressional members’ support for environmental legislation, demonstrates the diverse, bipartisan backing for the mineral withdrawal.

“We’re really grateful for the congressman weighing in this way,” said Maggie Coon, a leader of the Methow Headwaters Campaign. “It’s really helpful to this effort for there to be many voices heard. This is a very explicit message of support to key decision makers. It’s really timely. We are hopeful it will help to build momentum.”

Newhouse met with Coon last December as well as Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody and Winthrop Chamber of Commerce President David Gottula. The Methow delegation traveled Washington D.C. to meet with federal agency officials and Washington’s congressional representatives to advocate for the mineral withdrawal and try to push the process forward.

“Our D.C. trip was very important to make,” Ing-Moody said. “In our meeting with Congressman Newhouse, he was very attentive and engaged and really seemed to care about what we were saying. As an elected official I’m grateful for his support the very important role he plays in moving this to the finish line.”

The withdrawal campaign was launched in 2016 in response to plans by a Canadian mining company to conduct exploratory drilling to assess copper deposits on Flagg Mountain near Mazama. Methow Valley residents and business owners feared the drilling could open the door to future open-pit copper mining that would threaten the environment and the valley’s outdoor recreation-based economy.

Started in 2016

The withdrawal process was formally initiated in December 2016 when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency within the Department of the Interior, announced a two-year “segregation” period that suspends mining activity while the Forest Service and BLM evaluate whether to recommend the 20-year mineral withdrawal. Final action on the withdrawal must be recommended by the end of the two-year segregation period, which is Dec. 30, 2018.

However, a public meeting that is required as part of the segregation process has not been scheduled by the BLM and the two-year segregation period is more than half over. Agency officials have told the Methow Valley News that the delay resulted from changes in agency personnel and delays in appointing agency officials by the Trump administration. BLM officials have said the public meeting would be held in the Methow Valley.

“This public meeting must be held in order for the U.S. Forest Service’s mineral withdrawal recommendation to move through the review process at BLM and DOI (Department of the Interior),” Newhouse’s letter said.

“This meeting will provide the public with the opportunity to comment on the proposed action as well as have questions answered by agency personnel. I respectfully request the Department (of Interior) to publish a Public Meeting Notice as soon as possible,” he said.

Newhouse also urged the Forest Service to complete the required environmental review “and promptly submit a final recommendation for a 20-year mineral withdrawal of the 340,079-acre Methow Headwaters region to the Bureau of Land Management. I understand the U.S. Forest Service recently completed the scoping period and received overwhelming public support for the mineral withdrawal.”

He also urged the Department of Interior to review the final recommendation by the Forest Service before the end of the two-year segregation period on Dec. 30, 2018.

The Methow Valley is in the northwestern part of Newhouse’s congressional district and serves as the eastern gateway to the North Cascades National Park, Newhouse said. “The area is known for its expansive scenic vistas, agriculture, fishing and hunting, significant acreage of public lands, year-round recreational opportunities, and rural character,” he said.

“There has been near unanimous and bipartisan support in the Valley for the Methow Headwaters mineral withdrawal. From the local Chamber of Commerce and more than 135 businesses to tribal nations, hunters and anglers, sportsmen groups, farmers, and current and former state and local elected officials, this proposal has gained broad-based support,” Newhouse said.

Newhouse said he is looking forward to working with the Interior and Agriculture departments to move the mineral withdrawal forward. “There is a critical deadline of December 30, 2018, and key milestones to meet along the way,” he said.

In addition to the support of Newhouse, Cantwell and Murray in Washington D.C., the mineral withdrawal also has the support of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and the three Republican state legislators who represent the Methow Valley in Olympia — Brad Hawkins, Cary Condotta and Mike Steele. Also on record in support of the withdrawal are Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover, the towns of Twisp and Winthrop, the Yakama and Colville Nations, and more than 180 businesses, nonprofit and civic organizations.