Photo by Ashley Ahearn
Richard Evans testified at the BLM’s meeting to discuss a proposed moratorium on mining in the Methow headwaters.

Hundreds pack Winthrop Barn for BLM meeting

All the parking lots surrounding the Winthrop Barn were jam-packed last week when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) held a meeting to gather public comment on a proposal that would put a moratorium on industrial-scale mining in 340,079 acres of U.S. Forest Service land in the upper Methow Valley.

A Canadian mining company announced its intention to drill exploratory holes for copper in 2013, sparking a grassroots campaign in opposition that has gathered momentum and broad community support ever since.

The Methow Headwaters Campaign has pushed for legislation to permanently protect the watershed but elected officials have so far been unsuccessful in passing it in D.C. So, local activists have taken a different route and pushed for what’s called a “mineral withdrawal” instead. This would put a temporary moratorium on industrial-scale mining activity in the proposed area for the next 20 years.

The U.S. Forest Service conducted an Environmental Assessment and submitted a recommendation to the BLM in support of the mining moratorium in September. The meeting in Winthrop was the final step in the process of gathering public comments before the proposal goes to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for a final decision.

Last month, Zinke approved a similar mining ban on 30,000 acres north of Yellowstone National Park.

Lenore Heppler, branch chief with the BLM who attended the Winthrop meeting, said that successful efforts to ban mining — like the one in Montana — “have strong local support and strong support from elected officials and what we see here [in the Methow Valley] is strong bipartisan support, and that message we are going to send up the chain.”

Powerful comments

More than 400 people attended the public comment meeting, many sporting “Methow Headwaters” stickers. Every single comment from the audience was in opposition to mining, and many drew applause.

But the most powerful moment came when Mark Miller, a member of the Methow Tribe, whose people inhabited the valley for thousands of years, rose to make a comment. He started by noting that the Department of the Interior hasn’t always had the best relationship with Native people.

“I represent this landscape and I think that the purity of this valley, this land, shapes who we are in the future — not just the Indian people but all of us, collectively.” Miller paused. “You’re talking about long-term, generational effects.”

Miller’s words received a standing ovation, the only one of the evening.

The moratorium has been endorsed by more than 150 local businesses. It also has the support of the town councils of Twisp and Winthrop, the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce, outdoor recreational groups, angling organizations, hunters, backcountry horsemen and farmers.

“The Methow Valley and its headwaters provide habitat for a large number of animals, including a significant mule deer population that attracts hunters from around the region,” said Carmen Vanbianchi, a member of the Washington State Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “We see protecting this habitat as good for wildlife and for those of us who enjoy hunting and fishing, and as furthering the important contributions sportsmen and women make to our local economy.”

The mining moratorium has broad bipartisan support among elected officials as well. Democratic senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell both support it, as does Republican Congressman Dan Newhouse.

Next steps

The BLM has received more than 5,000 public comments, the overwhelming majority in support of the mining moratorium.

If Secretary Zinke does not make a decision by Dec. 29, the area will reopen for mining claims and anti-mining activists will renew efforts to get federal legislation passed to permanently protect the Methow Headwaters from future mining.

Andy Hover, an Okanogan County Commissioner who lives in Winthrop, said that the board of commissioners has previously written letters in support of the moratorium and that he will ask the board to write another urging Secretary Zinke to make his decision before the Dec. 29 deadline.

Richard Evans, who attended the meeting on behalf of Senator Maria Cantwell’s office, said they are watching this proposal closely.

“This current path is a way forward but right now we’re waiting to see what happens over the next six weeks,” Evans said.

Jacob Childers, a program lead with the BLM in Portland, said the Methow mining moratorium comes up frequently on calls with BLM headquarters in D.C. He added that there’s no telling if the White House will get involved or if Secretary Zinke will make a decision before Dec. 29.

“We’re at the tail end of the process in the Pacific Northwest and now it’s up to the Washington, D.C., folks,” he said. “The fact that there is standing room only, that has a bearing in what our decision will be. We have received thousands of comments already but you being here is definitely something that is going to be passed on to Washington, D.C.”