Photo courtesy of Methow Headwaters

Joe Balash, assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior (front, second from left), met with local residents during a recent visit to discuss protecting the upper Methow Valley from mining. At the Tawlks-Foster Suspension Bridge, Balash was accompanied by Kevin Van Bueren, John Crandall and Soo Ing-Moody (front, left to right), Jay Kehne, David Gottula, Scott Fitkin and Maggie Coon (back, left to right).

Crucial end-of-year deadline looms for ‘segregation’ process

By Ann McCreary

A key decision-maker in a process that would protect the upper Methow Valley from mining visited the valley last week to get a first-hand look at the land that is proposed for protection, and to hear about its value to the Methow Valley.

Joe Balash, assistant secretary for lands and minerals in the U.S. Department of the Interior, got a tour of the upper valley on Friday (Aug. 31). His visit included dinner at the Mazama Store and hearing from locals there about their support for withdrawing 342,000 acres of public land at the headwaters of the Methow River from future mining.

The visit by Balash came as an end-of-year deadline looms to complete the steps needed to put protections in place for the upper valley. 

The tour began at Sun Mountain Lodge, from which Balash was able to look out toward Flagg Mountain, where a Canadian mining company has proposed drilling exploratory holes on Forest Service land to determine if there is a copper deposit worth mining.

“We were also able to point out the close proximity of Mazama to where an industrial scale mine could be built,” said Maggie Coon, a Twisp resident and a leader of the Methow Headwaters Campaign, a grassroots effort to prevent mining in the upper valley.

Coon was among a group of Methow Valley residents who accompanied Balash on the tour and provided information about the threat that an open-pit copper mine would present to the valley’s environment and tourism-based economy.

“It was very informative for him to understand the impacts [of mining] locally on the economy, wildlife, habitat for fish, as well as the millions of dollars provided on the federal level for fish restoration projects,” said Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody. “I think it was critical to demonstrate to him on the ground, with local experts, the impact of industrial-scale mining.”

Clock is ticking

Balash holds an influential position in the Department of the Interior, which is one of two federal agencies that must sign off on a regulatory process known as a mineral withdrawal. Mineral withdrawal would make 342,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land in the Methow basin headwaters off-limits to mining for up to 20 years. The other federal agency involved in the mineral withdrawal is the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service. 

The clock is ticking on completing all the steps required to finish the mineral withdrawal process by a Dec. 30 deadline.  “At this point it is our understanding there is still time to complete this process in a timely way,” said Coon.

Balash came to the valley at the invitation of a delegation of valley residents who visited Washington, D.C., in June to advocate for the mineral withdrawal and to urge federal officials to complete the process before the end-of-year deadline.

The deadline is for a process called “segregation,” which is the first step toward a mineral withdrawal. Mining activities are not allowed during the segregation period, which was initiated on Dec. 30, 2016, and lasts two years. During that period the federal agencies evaluate whether to extend the protections for up to 20 years through a mineral withdrawal.

A key step in meeting the deadline is completion of an Environmental Assessment (EA) by the regional Forest Service office in Portland, Oregon. Coon said the Forest Service has said the EA “is imminent.”

Once completed, the EA will be provided to the Bureau of Land Management (overseen by Department of the Interior), which must then hold a public meeting before the end of the year. If the EA and public meeting are not completed by the deadline, the segregation notice would expire, the withdrawal process would end, and the area would be open to mining again.

Quickly organized

Proponents of the mineral withdrawal learned of Balash’s plans to visit only a week before he arrived, and quickly pulled together a group representing diverse interests in the issue. They included the delegation that went to Washington, D.C., earlier this summer — Coon, Ing-Moody, Jay Kehne of Conservation Northwest, Kevin Van Bueren, who owns a fly-fishing guide business, and Hannah Dewey, outreach coordinator for the Methow Headwaters Campaign.

They were joined last week by John Crandall, a fish biologist, Scott Fitkin, a state wildlife biologist, David Gottula, general manager of the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative, Ross Latham of Sun Mountain Lodge, state Sen. Brad Hawkins (R-East Wenatchee), and Jessica McCarthy, an aide to U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Sunnyside). Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover was unable to attend, but provided a letter supporting mineral withdrawal.

“One of the topics we talked about at length was wildlife values,” Coon said. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Balash’s boss, recently issued an executive order calling for protection of migration corridors for antelope, elk and mule deer, she said.

“We have very important mule deer migratory corridors here in the Methow. We were able to show where corridors overlap directly with the proposed withdrawal area. We had good expertise and delivered a map that shows that,” Coon said.

“We talked a lot about fisheries … and the contribution of the watershed to overall salmon recovery and investments in that,” she said.

The tour included a visit to the Tawlks-Foster Suspension Bridge in Mazama, where walkers and cyclists were out enjoying the scenery, Coon said. The day concluded with dinner at the Mazama Store.

“Local community members had an opportunity to talk to him. It was a great way to give him a visceral look at the overwhelming support [for protecting the Methow headwaters], which was our objective,” Coon said.

The visit from the high-ranking Interior Department official has encouraged proponents of the withdrawal, who are pushing federal officials to complete the mineral withdrawal.

“The fact that the assistant secretary was willing to take the time and have an on-the-ground understanding of what this place looks like — there really is so substitution for that, and he said multiple times how important that was,” Coon said.