Dec. 30 deadline looms for necessary action by agencies

By Ann McCreary

Six months after a delegation of Methow Valley residents traveled to Washington, D.C., to urge progress on protecting the upper Methow Valley from mining, advocates were back in the nation’s capitol last month with the same message.

With a year-end deadline approaching to complete key steps in removing 342,000 acres in the upper valley from future mining, they met with key officials who can influence the effort to protect the upper valley.

“A lot of the people we met with were the same ones we talked with in December,” said Maggie Coon of Twisp, who has been active in the Methow Headwaters campaign, a grassroots organization formed to advocate for the protection of the U.S. Forest Service land.

Coon and Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody were on the first trip to Washington, D.C., last December. They returned to the capitol on June 17-20 along with Kevin Van Bueren, who owns a local fly fishing guide service, Jay Kehne of Omak, who is a member of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, and Hannah Dewey, outreach coordinator for the Methow Headwaters Campaign.

The Headwaters Campaign was launched in 2016 in response to a Canadian mining company’s plans to conduct exploratory drilling for copper deposits on Flagg Mountain near Mazama. Proponents of protecting the area say mining threatens the environment and the Methow Valley’s tourism-based economy. The campaign advocates for a “mineral withdrawal,” which would make the public lands off-limits to mining for up to 20 years.

On their trip two weeks ago, the local delegation met with Washington’s two senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, both Democrats, and Congressman Dan Newhouse, a Republican, Coon said. They also met with the acting chief of the U.S. Forest Service and the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) — two agencies that play key roles on moving the mineral withdrawal forward. They also met with staff in both agencies who deal with mineral withdrawals.

Process is moving

“The process is moving through the channels as it should. It’s really on the radar back at the D.C. level,” Coon said. “We have been asking as we go through these meetings, ‘How do you see the feasibility of this being completed in a timely way?’ They’ve assured us there is ample time to complete it by Dec. 30.”

That is the deadline for a process known as “segregation,” the first step toward a mineral withdrawal. Mining activities are not allowed during the segregation period, which lasts two years. During that period Forest Service and Department of Interior (which oversees BLM) evaluate whether to extend the protections for up to 20 years with a mineral withdrawal.

It’s been more than a year and a half since the segregation was announced on Dec. 30, 2016. A required public comment period has been held, but a public meeting about the segregation, also a requirement, has never been scheduled. If that requirement is not fulfilled by the end of the two-year period, “the segregation notice would expire, and the area would be open [to mining] again,” Coon said.

The delay has previously been attributed to changes in agency personnel in the Forest Service, BLM and Department of Interior, and the Trump administration’s failure to appoint directors for many federal agencies after 19 months in office. Some of the key leadership positions in federal land management agencies, including the Forest Service, BLM, National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, still lack permanent leadership.

It appears that progress, or lack of it, in the mineral withdrawal is linked to different agencies completing their parts of the process, Coon said.

“It’s clear from what the BLM is telling us that before they hold the public meeting they must receive the completed environmental assessment (EA) from the Forest Service,” she said. She said the EA is being conducted by the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest supervisor’s office in Wenatchee and must be approved at the regional level in Portland and national level in Washington, D.C.

Back and forth

“There’s a lot of back and forth at these different levels,” Coon said. It is unclear whether the EA will require a public comment period.

“Apparently there is discretion in particular because there has already been a lot of public comment,” Coon said. Public comment periods have been held in as part of the Forest Service’s EA scoping process and following BLM’s announcement of the segregation.

“Technically, until the BLM holds that public meeting, the BLM’s comment period related to segregation is still open, and we can continue to submit comments that will be on the public record until that meeting is held,” Coon said.

The mineral withdrawal has support from the state’s Congressional delegation. Senators Cantwell and Murray have sponsored legislation called the Methow Headwaters Protection Act, which could provide permanent protection to the area. That legislation was passed out of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resource as part of a larger package, but has not been acted on.

In February, Newhouse wrote a letter to the secretaries of Agriculture (which oversees BLM) and Forest Service urging those agencies to move the withdrawal process forward.

BLM officials have said that a public meeting on segregation would be held in the Methow Valley. If it is not held by Dec. 30 before the segregation period expires, the effort to secure a mineral withdrawal would come to an end, Coon said. “Apparently you cannot reinitiate the same process,” she said.