Legislation would withdraw 340,000+ acres from new mining
By Ann McCreary
The effort to protect the upper Methow Valley from future mining took another step forward when it was endorsed last week by the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C.
Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack said work has begun on the process of withdrawing more than 340,000 acres of U.S Forest Service lands in the upper valley from new mineral exploration or mining.
Vilsack expressed support for the Methow Headwaters Protection Act (S2991) — legislation submitted this summer by Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell (both D-Washington) calling for permanent withdrawal of the land at the headwaters of the Methow River from mining activities.
“I recognize the ecological and economic significance of the Methow Valley to the surrounding communities, and I am committed to effectively safeguarding these vital resources,” Vilsack said in a letter to Murray. “I support S2991 and believe a mineral withdraw is the best path forward” to protect the “ecological, cultural and economic significance of the Methow Valley.”
The process of withdrawing the land begins with an application developed by the Forest Service, an agency of the Department of Agriculture.
“In response to legislation you introduced as well as public input, the agency is beginning to assemble the withdrawal application,” Vilsack wrote to Murray.
“This administrative step toward mineral withdrawal in the Methow River watershed is a great development in the effort to protect these vital natural resources, “ Murray said after receiving the news last week.
The effort to withdraw the 340,079 acres from mineral exploration and mining was spearheaded by the Methow Headwaters campaign, a local organization launched last February in opposition to a Canadian mining company’s proposal to drill holes to explore for copper in Mazama.
“The Methow Headwaters Campaign appreciates Secretary Vilsack’s acknowledgement that the Forest Service has started the withdrawal application,” said Maggie Coon, one of the campaign’s leaders.
She said the campaign organizers are now focused on encouraging the withdrawal process to move forward as quickly as possible.
“We are encouraging our supporters to write the Forest Service to request the withdrawal application be completed now so that the segregation notice (the official notification of the proposed withdrawal) can happen before the end of this administration,” Coon said.
The notice of “segregation” closes the land to mineral exploration and mining for two years pending further analysis and a final decision on the withdrawal by the Secretary of the Interior. Usually, applications take a year or more to complete, Vilsack said.
“Applications for withdrawal are complex and require preparations of several items including the description of the lands to be withdrawn, justification for withdrawal, and whether any suitable alternative sites are available for the proposed use, or for uses which the requested withdrawal would displace,” Vilsack wrote in his letter to Murray.
Once the application is completed and submitted, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will decide whether to accept or deny it. If the application is accepted, the segregation notice is published in the federal register and the two-year analysis period begins.
The segregation closes the land to mining activity, subject to valid existing rights, Vilsack said. That means claims that are deemed to have valid existing rights are not affected by the proposed mineral segregation or withdrawal.
“If a properly located and maintained mining claim predates mineral segregation and the claim contained a discovery of valuable minerals as of the date of segregation, and that discovery continues to the present time, the claim is deemed to have valid existing rights,” he said.
Claimants must prove the validity of the claim based on a number of factors, including whether extracting the minerals is “logical” based on records kept about the mine, geologic and economic considerations, said Keith Kelly, area geologist for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
“If your paperwork says you are claiming you have gold, you need to show a level of gold that shows a prudent person would spend more money to seek and develop it,” Kelly said.
He said there are about five different claimants listed in the BLM’s mining claim database within the 340,079 acres proposed for withdrawal, including the claim group that Blue River Resources wants to explore for copper deposits.
If any of those claimants proposed to explore or mine for minerals, they would be required to go through the process of proving the claim is valid, Kelly said.
An administrative withdrawal approved by Secretary of Interior would remove the land from new mineral exploration or extraction for up to 20 years. The legislative withdrawal would make it permanently off-limits to new exploration or mining for the duration of the withdrawal.
Mineral exploration and extraction in the Methow Valley dates back to the late 1800s, Vilsack said.
“The … Mazama Copper Exploration Project … stems from intermittent mineral exploration that has been conducted near the town of Mazama since the 1960s. Historic exploration identified a prospective copper deposit and resulted in the filing of a number of mining claims,” Vilsack said.
Blue River Resources Ltd., a Vancouver, B.C.-based mining company with a Wyoming subsidiary, has applied for a permit to drill up to 15 exploratory holes on Flagg Mountain to assess whether valuable copper deposits are present.
The owner of the claims, according to documents filed with the Methow Ranger District, is Mazama Minerals Inc. of Henderson, Nevada.
Blue River Resources “acquired an option to earn a 100 percent interest in the Mazama Project” in 2013, according the company website, and applied that year to the Forest Service for a permit to conduct exploratory drilling.
Processing the application and conducting the required environmental analysis has been delayed by wildfires that diverted Forest Service staff, and by extensive public interest.
“The Forest Service anticipated completing the environmental analysis and making a decision on authorization for the exploration this summer,” Vilsack said.
“However, through the public engagement process and subsequent analysis, several new considerations have surfaced, including … that the area proposed for possible exploration ad mining activity may be significant to area Tribes,” he said.
In September, members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation raised concerns about the potential for future mining in the upper Methow Valley, and the harm it could cause natural resources, as well as the tribes’ cultural and spiritual connections to that land.
As a result, Forest Service archaeologists were working with the tribes to address those concerns.
As the Forest Service continued work toward completing Blue River Resources drilling application, the Methow Headwaters campaign gained the support of more than 130 local businesses, 2,000 individuals and two dozen community and environmental organizations to stop future mining in the upper valley.
The organization lobbied federal agencies and Congressional representatives, convincing them to support withdrawal of the Forest Service lands from mining.
Methow Trails, which operates the valley’s groomed cross-country ski trail system, is one of the local organizations that supported the Methow Headwaters campaign.
“With our winter recreation season approaching, it’s encouraging to know efforts are underway to protect the recreational, scenic and community values that make the Methow Valley a premier destination for visitors and a special place to live,” said James DeSalvo, Methow Trails executive director.
Last month the Methow Headwaters Protection Act was considered in a hearing held by the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. The next step would be a full committee vote.