File photo by Ann McCreary

The scenic upper Methow Valley has moved closer to protection from future mining.

Comment sought on proposal to protect USFS land

A public meeting is set for Nov. 13 in Winthrop on a proposal to prevent future mining on 340,079 acres in the upper Methow Valley.

A new public comment period is also open until Nov. 13 on a proposed mineral withdrawal, which would protect the U.S. Forest Service land from mining for up to 20 years. The public meeting and comment period are among the final steps required for the withdrawal, which must get final approval from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The remote, mountainous country at the top of the Methow River watershed has been the focus of a three-year Methow Headwaters Campaign, a grassroots initiative that lobbied for protecting the Methow Valley’s environment and recreation-based economy from adverse impacts of mining.

An end-of-year deadline to hold the public meeting has had proponents of the withdrawal    nervous, so the Oct. 10 announcement by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was welcome news.

“It is definitely encouraging to finally see the BLM’s official publication of the required public meeting for the Methow Valley’s mineral withdrawal request,” said Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody, who has been a strong advocate for the mineral withdrawal.

“We are extremely encouraged by this announcement. This has been a long-awaited step and will really move this forward,” said Maggie Coon of Twisp, a leader of the Methow Headwaters Campaign.

“We’re encouraging people to submit comments, and it’s very important that people come to this meeting,” Coon said. “The comments and attendance are going to be very important. We need to demonstrate that we have overwhelming support for this.”

The meeting will be held in the Winthrop Barn at 6 p.m., as announced in a notice published Oct. 10 in the Federal Register. The notice also announced reopening of public comment on the proposed withdrawal until Nov. 13.

Comments may be sent to the Bureau of Land Management, Oregon State Office, P.O. Box 2965, Portland, OR 97208-2965, or by email at blm_or_wa_withdrawals@blm.gov.

Officials will attend

Local and regional BLM and Forest Service officials will be at the Winthrop meeting to provide information about the mineral withdrawal, and to hear comments from the public, said Michael Campbell, a BLM public information officer.

“I look forward to attending this public meeting and voicing my support for the mineral withdrawal,” said David Gottula, general manager of the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative. Gottula lobbied for the withdrawal on behalf of the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce last year during a visit to Washington, D.C. “I encourage everyone that can make it to attend the meeting and show our support for Methow Headwaters,” he said.

Comments received during the current public comment period, and at the meeting, will be included in the final package of information sent to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has the final decision on approving, denying, or postponing action on the withdrawal application.

Zinke last week approved a 20-year mineral withdrawal for 47 square miles in scenic mountains north of Yellowstone National Park in his home state of Montana, after two proposed gold mines raised concerns that an area that attracts tourists from the around the globe could be spoiled.

The Nov. 13 meeting in Winthrop will be held only six weeks before a two-year study period on the withdrawal proposal expires. The meeting is required as part of that temporary study period, called “segregation,” during which the area is off-limits to any mineral exploration or mining activities. The segregation began on Dec. 30, 2016, and is set to expire on Dec. 29. If required steps are not met by that deadline, the area would be open again to staking claims or other mining activities.

The slow progress of the mineral withdrawal application prompted supporters to visit Washington, D.C., twice during the past year to lobby congressional representatives and leaders of the agencies involved in the process — BLM, Department of the Interior and the Forest Service. The withdrawal has bipartisan support from Washington’s Democratic senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, and Republican Congressman Dan Newhouse, whose district includes the Methow Valley.

Cantwell and Murray have introduced legislation in Congress, called the Methow Headwaters Protection Act, that would provide permanent protection from mining in the upper valley.

Withdrawal recommended

Last month, the Forest Service released an Environmental Assessment examining the impact of the mineral withdrawal, and recommended that the 340,079 acres — about 531 square miles — be withdrawn from consideration for mining for a 20-year period, to allow Congress time to consider legislation that would provide permanent protection.

The mineral withdrawal will “protect the value of ecological and recreation resources of the Methow Valley,” according to the Forest Service letter recommending the withdrawal.

The Methow Headwaters Campaign was launched after a Canadian mining company announced its intention in 2013 to drill exploratory holes on Forest Service land on Flagg Mountain near Mazama, to assess if there is a copper deposit worth mining. The company holds an interest in mineral rights in the area and, under longstanding federal mining laws, had the right to explore for copper, so the Forest Service began conducting environmental analysis of the drilling proposal.

Alarmed that the mineral exploration could someday lead to full-scale copper mining, leaders of the Methow Headwaters Campaign, including Coon and Mazama Country Inn owner Bill Pope, developed a broad coalition — including business owners, government and tribal leaders, conservation and recreation organizations — to oppose mining in the area. The campaign argued that environmental damage from mining posed a risk to the economy and lifestyle of the Methow Valley and Okanogan County.

The Nov. 13 public meeting is the last step the BLM must complete before a final recommendation on the withdrawal is made by Interior Secretary Zinke.

Last month Joe Balash, an assistant secretary to Zinke, visited the Methow Valley at the invitation of the Methow Headwaters Campaign. While here he was given a tour of the valley and a first-hand look at the area proposed for protection, and had an opportunity to talk with local residents about their concerns.

During the first comment period on withdrawal that began Dec. 30, 2016, about 4,500 comments were submitted, most in support of the withdrawal, according to the Forest Service Environmental Assessment. Most comments focused on preserving the upper valley’s clean water, scenery, recreation and wilderness opportunities.