Top headlines emerge from 52 weeks of news

It wasn’t quite déjà vu all over again, but the top Methow Valley news stories of 2018 — as determined by a poll of our readers — bear some resemblance to the top 10 list for 2017. The top two stories of 2017 — the Methow Headwaters Campaign and the impact of summer fires — again drew the most votes, this year with the order reversed (and of course, it was a different set of fires last summer).

The Headwaters Campaign coverage actually was being revised up to the last moment before we went to press and is essentially a breaking news story.

Other repeats from 2017’s list: the future of the North Cascades Smokejumper Base; the issue of access to rural roads; the possibility of reintroducing grizzly bears to the North Cascades; and continued turmoil in the Winthrop Marshal’s Office. The 2018 list includes a dozen stories, as there was a three-way tie for 10th place (the 2017 list also had 12 stories for the same reason).

This is the second year we’ve asked readers to determine their favorites by voting online or by paper ballot. Again, we had good participation with only a vote or two separating some of the finalists. We thank everyone who took the time to fill out a ballot.

Photo by Steve Mitchell

The McLeod Fire, one of two major blazes in the Methow Valley last summer,  burned 24,400 acres northeast of Mazama.

1. Summer fires/evacuation/health issues

Wildfires — and persistent choking, unhealthy smoke — plagued the Methow Valley for more than half of the summer. It was the fourth bad fire season in five years.

The Crescent Mountain Fire burned almost 53,000 acres in the upper Twisp River and Libby Creek drainages, threatening homes and property for two months. The fire was ignited by lightning on July 29 and burned actively until cooler temperatures and moisture in October helped subdue the still-creeping blaze.

Scores of area residents were evacuated for weeks. Daily video briefings from fire teams deployed to the valley from around the country became a “must-watch” for valley residents anxious for news of the fires.

The McLeod Fire burned 24,400 acres northeast of Mazama. While that fire was further from developed areas, it threatened properties in the Lost River and Chewuch drainages. It was ignited by lightning on Aug. 11 and also burned until October.

Despite the long fire season and high demand for firefighters around the country, which limited available resources, fire crews kept the fires away from residences and no structures were lost. Much of the terrain where the fires were burning was so steep that firefighters were limited in ways to safely combat the blazes.

Smoke — from the local fires and fires in British Columbia and elsewhere in the Northwest — hung over the valley for weeks, prompting those who could to leave town, significantly reducing tourism, and keeping people indoors when possible. Respiratory masks were a common accessory on those who were outside.

A post-fire assessment found the majority of the area within the Crescent Mountain Fire perimeter burned with low or moderate severity. Still, the assessment recommends closing two campgrounds because of the risk of mudslides and floods.

The McLeod Fire caused more moderate damage overall, although there are more than 5,000 acres at risk of serious erosion because the soil burned so hot it can repel water.

Dozens of trails and campgrounds were closed from late July through the fall hunting season. Many will likely remain closed because of hazardous trees and to repair damage from the fires.

Photo courtesy of Methow Headwaters

Joe Balash, assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior (front, second from left) met with local officials and residents in August to discuss protecting the upper Methow Valley from mining.

2. Headwaters Campaign

Proponents of a moratorium on mining in the upper Methow Valley expressed dismay and disappointment Monday (Dec. 31) after Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke let a deadline to approve or reject the moratorium pass without action.

Zinke’s office was the final step in a three-year campaign to protect the headwaters of the Methow River from future mining with a 20-year moratorium. But Zinke was leaving the Trump administration at the end of December as a result of numerous ethics investigations into his business dealings, travel and policy decisions.

The application for a mineral withdrawal, which would suspend mining for 20 years on 340,079 acres of Forest Service land in the upper Methow Valley, was apparently still in Zinke’s office when he left at year’s end to avoid being fired.

“Last month more than 400 area residents turned out for a community meeting … to endorse making these critical lands off-limits to large-scale mining,” said Maggie Coon of Twisp, a leader of the Methow Headwaters Campaign, a grassroots organization that has pushed the mineral withdrawal application through a complex process over the past three years.

“This is vitally important to our community and we will keep working to protect the headwaters. That the Department of the Interior has not acted on the withdrawal means we will also redouble our effort to seek protection through legislation,” Coon said. “It’s been an amazing journey and we are undaunted in our resolve.”

While a mineral withdrawal would prevent mining for two decades, the goal of the Methow Headwaters Campaign has been permanent protection for the upper valley, which can only be achieved by legislation in Congress. The mineral withdrawal would protect the area while Congress considers legislation to permanently withdraw the lands.

Washington senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, have introduced legislation called the “Methow Headwaters Protection Act” that would permanently remove the 340,079 acres — about 531 square miles — from future mining. The act was introduced in 2016 and 2017, and would need to be reintroduced in the next session of Congress.

The mineral withdrawal gained broad support in the state and bipartisan support in Congress. In a statement Monday, Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Sunnyside), said he was “disappointed the Department of Interior did not complete its work to finalize a 20-year moratorium. … This proposal was approved by the U.S. Forest Service and is overwhelmingly supported by constituents across North Central Washington.”

Newhouse added, “As we enter a new year and a new Congress, I am determined to pursue the options available — including legislative route — to push this effort across the finish line and protect the Methow Headwaters.”

Coon said the mineral withdrawal appears to have fallen victim to “an unusual confluence of events — the resignation of a Secretary of Interior and the government shutdown occurring simultaneously.”

The Dec. 30 deadline marked the expiration of a two-year study period, called “segregation,” that is required before a mineral withdrawal can be approved. During segregation the area under consideration for withdrawal is off-limits to new mining activity.

When the two-year segregation ends the area opens again to staking claims and other mining activities, according to Michael Campbell, a public information officer for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is part of the Interior Department.

However, the mineral withdrawal application is still pending, and could be acted on in the future. “It can sit for years and years and the application remains open and is still valid,” said Campbell, who works for the BLM in its regional office in Portland, Oregon.

“We are very disappointed that the two-year segregation period has concluded without action,” Coon said. “It is particularly frustrating given the hard work that has been undertaken by citizens and land managers. While we recognize the government shutdown has affected many agencies, including Interior, we ask the department’s leadership to finalize the withdrawal as soon as possible to help support the future of our communities, wildlife and economy.”

The effort to protect the upper Methow Valley began after a Canadian copper company, Blue River Resources, announced its intention in 2013 to drill exploratory holes on Flagg Mountain, near Mazama, to assess if there is a copper deposit worth mining. Under federal mining laws, the Forest Service does not have the authority to deny mineral claims holders the right to explore for and develop mineral resources on federal lands, and the Methow Valley Ranger District began environmental analysis of the drilling.

The proposed drilling raised fears of future open-pit copper mining in the scenic mountains near Mazama, and led to creation of the Methow Headwaters Campaign. The campaign has argued that the impacts of mining would be devastating for the environment and the tourism-based economy of the Methow Valley.

The campaign gained momentum during the past three years, gaining support from businesses, town councils and county commissioners, tribal nations, and organizations representing recreation, environmental and hunting interests. More than 5,000 comments from individual and organizations, the vast majority in support of the mineral withdrawal, were submitted during public comment on the proposed withdrawal.

“The effort to protect the headwaters brought our community together,” said Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody. “Support has been broad-based and bipartisan in a way that few issues are these days.”

3. Well restrictions could halt building

Photo by Marcy Stamper

Wolf Creek is one of 30 streams and lakes in the Methow Valley with no more  water available for new development.

People who own property on more than 1,000 lots in the Methow may not be able to build a house unless they can find a way to get water without a well. The affected lots are in one of 30 basins around small streams and lakes considered to have already reached their maximum for water withdrawals.

The determination that there’s no more water available from these streams and lakes is nothing new — it’s in a 1976 state rule for the Methow watershed. But the Washington Department of Ecology recently decided that its scientists can no longer assure that drilling a well into bedrock will prevent water from being sucked from the closed stream or lake. As a result, Ecology won’t allow any new water uses in the areas.

Fourteen streams and 16 lakes, including Wolf Creek, Bear Creek and Beaver Creek, are on the list of affected watersheds. Most of the lakes are high in the mountains, but Patterson, Pearrygin and Davis lakes are on the list.

Because Ecology informed Okanogan County of its new scientific rationale only in October, the county is still exploring solutions that might allow people to build on their land. Among the approaches under consideration is trucking water to a holding tank, but certifying that a water tank could meet the health code is still a long way off.

Ecology’s decision doesn’t affect all lots in these 30 watersheds. Areas closer to the Methow, Chewuch and Twisp rivers could still be approved for new wells because they’d be drawing water from the river, not the tributary.

4. Proposed Chewuch River water rights transfer

A proposed sale of water rights from a Winthrop ranch to a private company raised concerns among some valley residents that local water rights for irrigation could be lost for use in the Methow Valley.

An application for the water rights sale was submitted in June by Crown Columbia Resources, a subsidiary of a New York-based real estate investment firm. Crown Columbia wants to purchase surface water rights from the Lundgren Limited Family Partnership, which holds rights to water that is withdrawn from the Chewuch River. The Lundgrens operate a ranch and guest house near the end of the East Chewuch Road and have entered into an agreement to sell water rights to Crown Columbia.

The application, which is under consideration by the Okanogan County Water Conservancy Board, has generated more public interest and comment than any previous application, according to board members and staff. More than 75 individuals or organizations submitted objections to the application during a comment period last summer. The county Water Conservancy Board serves as an advisory group to the state Department of Ecology, which makes final decisions in water rights matters.

Among those opposing the water sale is the Chewuch Canal Company, which withdraws water from the Chewuch River to provide irrigation to more than 180 shareholders. The company has argued that Crown Columbia has not provided accurate information about the amount of water available for sale, and that the sale would impair the canal company’s water right.

Chewuch Canal Company has also argued that Crown Columbia’s plan to temporarily place the water right in the state Trust Water Program, to be held for future sale or lease downstream as far as the mouth of the Columbia River, is a misuse of the state water banking program to serve a private water investment scheme. At a Water Conservancy Board meeting in December, an attorney for the canal company suggested that the county board send the application directly to Ecology, due to the complexity of the issues involved.

Photo courtesy of WSU extension

Apple maggot larvae feed on apples, devastating the fruit. They also use native hawthorn berries as a host.

5. Apple-maggot quarantine

Dozens of adult apple-maggot flies have been found in the Methow for more than a decade, but the discovery of flies and larvae in 2018 — indicating a reproducing and established population of the devastating pest — landed the Methow Valley on the state’s quarantine list.

The quarantine means people cannot take home-grown apples outside the Methow Valley — not south of Gold Creek nor east of the Loup Loup summit. The quarantine is intended to protect Washington’s $2.4-billion apple industry, about two-thirds of total U.S. apple production.

People also have to separate all fresh fruit, homegrown vegetables, grass clippings and yard waste from their trash. These items must now be composted at home or put in a separate bin for green waste at the Twisp transfer station.

The quarantine extends to the Canadian border and butts up against existing quarantines to the west. There is no quarantine in the rest of Okanogan County. Cooked or processed apples can be taken outside the quarantined area.

The Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) imposed the quarantine in November after a several-month review. But Okanogan County Solid Waste and private hauler WasteWise Methow found they had to do some last-minute improvisation to comply.

The apple-maggot infestation worries commercial growers. “Backyard growers need to take action, or our product in Okanogan County could be in jeopardy — it’s serious,” said Dave Schulz, who sells apples from his Twisp orchard both domestically and abroad. Orchardists within the quarantined area can request an inspection from WSDA so their fruit can be certified pest-free and sold commercially.

Photo by Ann McCreary

Jim Pena (left), regional forester for the Pacific Northwest Region, met with local officials at TwispWorks on April 24 to discuss the North Cascades Smokejumper Base. To his left are Ryan Nehl, deputy forest supervisor for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, and Mike Williams, forest supervisor for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

6. Smokejumper Base’s future

Prospects for keeping the North Cascades Smokejumper Base (NCSB) in the Methow Valley grew more encouraging in 2018, with regional U.S. Forest Service officials making it a top priority among aviation projects.

At the request of local elected officials and civic leaders, the regional forester and other Forest Service officials traveled to the Methow Valley in May to discuss the future of the 78-year-old base, located at the Methow Valley State Airport.

A study in 2017 had examined the possibility of relocating smokejumping operations to another airport in Washington due to expensive improvements needed at the base. Among the improvements is a requirement to move four buildings that are located too close to the airport runway in violation of federal regulations. The study found that as much as $5.2 million is needed for new construction and renovations at the base, known as “the birthplace of smokejumping.”

The prospect of closing the base, which has economic and cultural importance to the Methow Valley, alarmed local officials who launched a campaign to keep the base at its historic home. In addition to reassurance last spring from Forest Service officials who said they would seek funding for the base, Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Sunnyside) met with local officials in October and promised to continue working to maintain NCSB in the Methow Valley, including helping with future appropriations requests in Congress.

The Forest Service, which owns and operates the base, hired a consulting firm, CTA Architects Engineers, to evaluate plans for improvements at the base and to develop final proposals and cost estimates by January 2019. Once a final plan is selected, an appropriation from Congress would be sought. The project is likely to be done in phases, Forest Service officials said.

Photo by Ann McCreary

The Methow Housing Trust is constructing five new homes in Twisp and another four near Mazama.

7. Methow Housing Trust starts building

At least half a dozen households headed by people who struggle to find affordable housing in the Methow — despite steady jobs — should be moving into their own brand-new homes in 2019, thanks to the Methow Housing Trust. The housing trust is constructing five homes in Twisp; another four are being built in Mazama and will be donated to the trust.

That’s just the first phase of a plan that could ultimately create 50 to 60 affordable homes in three new neighborhoods throughout the valley.

The housing trust is founded on a community land-trust model, where people buy the house but the trust owns the land. Increases in the resale price are restricted to keep the houses affordable.

The houses are intended for people earning 60 to 100 percent of the Okanogan County median income — about $27,000 to $45,000 for a single-person household and $39,000 to $65,000 for four people.

When complete, the Canyon Street Neighborhood in Twisp will have 13 two- and three-bedroom homes, each with a yard, outdoor storage and parking. There will be a common landscaped area on the property.

The McKinney Ridge Neighborhood in Mazama will have a similar design and pricing, but it’s being developed independently. Once the houses are constructed, they’ll be donated to the trust to manage like its other neighborhoods. Ultimately the Mazama site is expected to accommodate 19 homes, about half affordable housing and half market-rate.

The housing trust has also purchased property in Winthrop, but doesn’t anticipate building there until at least 2020. That site can accommodate 25 to 35 homes.

The housing trust grew out of studies that showed that median real estate sales prices in the Methow have been outpacing wage increases by a factor of three for at least a decade.

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

An environmental impact statement is being prepared on the grizzly relocation plan.

8. Mixed signals on grizzly bear reintroduction

An environmental review process for proposed grizzly bear reintroduction into the North Cascades followed an unpredictable path through 2018. The review had come to a standstill in 2017 when Trump administration officials halted work without explanation.

In March 2018, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke jump-started the process when he announced his support for grizzly bear recovery in the North Cascades during a press conference in Sedro Wooley. In May, Okanogan County commissioners weighed in with a letter objecting to reintroduction. The letter, sent to federal agencies evaluating the proposal, said transplanting grizzlies would threaten the “local economy, customs and culture” of Okanogan County.

In June, a study documenting the historical presence of grizzly bears in the North Cascades was released by the National Park Service to address questions raised during the environmental review about whether the area ever supported a grizzly population.

In August, the Department of the Interior, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced their intention to take additional time to consider further input about grizzly restoration in the North Cascades.

The agencies’ announcement meant a final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and a record of decision that was expected to be completed in 2018 would be delayed. The announcement was welcomed by Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, who has been an outspoken opponent of grizzly bear restoration.

The North Cascades grizzly recovery study began in 2014 under the Obama administration. A draft EIS was released in early 2017, followed by public comment periods and public meetings, including one in Winthrop. The draft EIS proposed three approaches to re-establishing a population of 200 grizzly bears in the North Cascades ecosystem, which encompasses 9,800 square miles in Washington state — including the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and the Methow Valley Ranger District — and another 3,800 square miles in British Columbia. More than 126,000 comments and correspondence have been received on the draft EIS.

Photo by Ashley Ahearn
Mountain goats from the Olympic National Park were transported to a new home in the North Cascades.

9. Mountain goats transplanted to North Cascades

Several hundred mountain goats are settling into their new home in the North Cascades, thanks to state and federal agencies which relocated the goats this past fall.

The goats were captured in Olympic National Park (where they were introduced in the 1920s) and transported by refrigerator truck and helicopter to be released at 10 sites in the Cascades. Several dozen goats were released near Tower Mountain, a site not far from Highway 20 near Rainy Pass.

Nanny goats and their kids were transported in pairs, along with one very large billy goat (it took eight volunteers to lift his crate out of the truck).

10. (tie) Access disputes on rural roads

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service
This gate on upper Texas Creek Road is one of three gates the Open Roads Coalition wants to be removed.

A dispute over whether part of French Creek Road is public — or just an access road to the adjacent landowners’ private property — remains in Okanogan County Superior Court, headed for a trial in 2020.

The Okanogan Open Roads Coalition is challenging an effort by property owners Gamble Land and Timber and Cascade Holdings Group to certify a 3-mile section of French Creek Road as private. The road is outside the town of Methow.

The coalition has presented maps, road logs and testimonials going back more than 100 years as evidence to show that the road has been used consistently since it was the main stagecoach route into the Methow Valley.

Gamble Land and Cascade Holdings argue that these maps and lists contain many inaccuracies and that there’s no proof the road was ever public.

Okanogan County initially challenged Gamble’s claim to the road, but then declined to take further action to defend the road status. After the open roads coalition intervened, the county said it would abide by the court’s decision

The coalition contends that the case has broader implications, to preserve access to public lands and evacuation routes. They have asked the county to compel private property owners to remove three gates in the same area, on both French Creek and Texas Creek roads, that the coalition says are unlawful. The county says the issue over the gates should be resolved in court.

10. (tie) Growth of state’s wolf population slows

An annual survey of Washington’s gray wolf population, released in March, found that the population of wolves continued to grow in 2017, but at a slower rate than in recent years, and the number of wolves documented in or near the Methow Valley dropped from 11 in 2016 to five at the end of 2017.

The survey of wolves conducted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) found the state was home to a minimum of 122 wolves in 22 packs at the end of 2017, compared to 115 wolves in 20 packs at the end of 2016. The overall number of wolves increased about 6 percent in 2017, compared to an average annual increase of about 30 percent over the past decade.

The survey identified four new wolf packs in 2017, all located in the eastern part of the state. It also found that the number of successful breeding pairs of wolves increased from 10 in 2016 to 14 pairs in 2017. The report also noted the first wolf documented in western Washington — a wolf in Skagit County that has been collared and was being tracked by wildlife officials.

Two of the state’s 22 wolf packs have territory in the Methow Valley — the Lookout and Loup Loup packs. Based on aerial surveys, WDFW found only two wolves in the Loup Loup Pack in 2017, which was estimated to have eight animals in 2016.  The two wolves, a male and a female, had radio collars that allowed biologists to track them.

The Lookout pack, named for Lookout Mountain, had three wolves in 2017, the same number as the previous two years, according to the survey findings.

10. (tie) Winthrop loses another marshal

Photo by Ann McCreary
Dan Tindall took over as Winthrop’s marshal in August 2017, but lost his certification as a police officer in October 2018.

The seeming stability that had finally been achieved in the Winthrop Marshal’s Office was again disrupted in 2018 when a state agency revoked the police officer certification of Marshal Dan Tindall.

The marshal’s appeal of a decertification order issued by the state Criminal Justice and Training Commission (CJTC) in October was denied by an Okanogan County Superior Court judge in November. Tindall had to give up the marshal’s position he assumed in August 2017. He will not be able to serve as a peace officer anywhere in the state for at least five years.

The CJTC’s decertification order refered to a 2015 incident in which Tindall — then a Washington State Patrol trooper — was accused of making false or misleading statements related to the investigation of his son for alleged criminal activity. In August 2015, Tindall retired from the WSP after 25 years of service. In 2016, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor criminal charge in the case related to charges against his teenage son.

The town has two full-time deputies, Doug Johnson and Ken Bajema, both hired by Tindall since he took over as marshal last year. Johnson has been named acting marshal.

The town is budgeted for three full-time police officers, and has rarely been fully staffed over the past several years because of firings and resignations. When Tindall took the marshal’s job, he was the only law enforcement officer on staff at the time.

Other contenders …

Just missing the cut were local election results, and the selection of a site for the new public library in Winthrop. Not on the list because it occured late in the year: the death of Cinder the Bear, which likely would have drawn a good number of votes.

Others on ballot: County reworks rules for marijuana operations; Winthrop’s Westernization board hit by resignations; Okanogan County PUD reverses course on Enloe Dam; Methow Valley District Ranger Mike Liu retires; Methow Valley Community School closes; Winthrop identifies location for new library; Suit alleging DNR negligence in Carlton Complex Fire is dismissed; Winthrop adopts moratorium on nightly rental conversions; Methow River’s steady erosion threatens church in Twisp; Mission Project gets final U.S. Forest Service go-ahead; Exchange health insurance options continue to shrink.

Ann McCreary, Marcy Stamper, Ashley Ahearn and Don Nelson contributed to this story.