Process to withdraw large area from mining is on track
By Don Nelson
One big question was on a lot minds last weekend when leaders of the Methow Headwaters Campaign hosted an informational meeting at the Twisp River Grange:
How might the incoming Trump administration, with different agency leadership and different attitudes about natural resources, affect the locally based campaign’s efforts to limit industrial-scale mining on a large swath of U.S. Forest Service lands near Mazama?
Maggie Coon, one of the Headwaters Campaign coalition’s leaders, told a full house of interested residents that the “mineral withdrawal” efforts to protect some 340,000 acres of Forest Service land from future mining already have a lot of momentum, including the backing of Washington’s two U.S. senators and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That may be enough to keep the process moving forward, she said, while conceding that “we are indeed in uncertain times.”
The nonprofit Headwaters Campaign, launched in February of this year in opposition to a Canadian mining company’s proposal to drill holes to explore for copper near Mazama, is working on two tracks: administrative action by the Forest Service and U.S. Agriculture Department that would temporarily (for up to 20 years) limit mining in the designated area, and legislation introduced by Washington senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell that would permanently restrict future mining.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack recently expressed support for the Methow Headwaters Protection Act submitted by Murray and Cantwell last summer.
“In response to legislation you introduced as well as public input, the agency is beginning to assemble the withdrawal application,” Vilsack wrote to Murray.
The Agriculture Department — of which the Forest Service is a part — is moving forward with its review. Once the department files a notice of intent to proceed with the withdrawal — hopefully during the current administration, Coon said — an environmental review begins. That could take up to a couple of years, she said.
“It is a key first step,” Coon said of the notice of intent to withdraw, or “segregate” in administrative parlance. Administrative action may be the best course to prioritize “given the political realities” of an administration change in early 2017, she said.
Jason Kuiken, deputy forest supervisor for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, told the audience at the grange hall that the Forest Service is “very close to being able to submit the application” for withdrawal.
Affects of withdrawal
Withdrawal stops any future development, but valid existing exploration claims may proceed. However, anyone with a claim must prove that mining will be a profitable venture based on prevailing prices of copper or other minerals that might be extracted.
Withdrawal won’t affect any other activities on Forest Service Land, Coon said. She said that there are examples of other mineral withdrawals in the West, including a huge area around the Grand Canyon.
A 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. 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.
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. Recently 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.
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.
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.
The Headwaters Campaign has argued that mining would pose a major threat to the local tourism- and recreation-based economy, could negatively affect water quality in the designated area, and could harm fish and wildlife populations.
Coon said community involvement by a wide range of interests has been the key to advancing the Methow Headwaters Campaign’s goals. “We have built an incredible campaign,” Coon said.
Coon said that the campaign’s broad-based support — more than 135 local businesses, 2,000 individuals and 30 community and environmental organizations, plus support from the Colville and Yakama tribes — “will stand us in good stead.” The town councils of Twisp and Winthrop have also passed resolutions of support for the Headwaters Campaign.
Coon, whose activism in the Methow Valley dates back to efforts to stop a major alpine ski area development near Mazama in the 1970s, said that “I’ve never seen a coalition like this. It’s really gratifying.” She said there has been little opposition to the group’s efforts so far.
Goals going forward are to continue building support, push for a notice of segregation in the federal register before the year is out, and hope for an environmental review in 2017 and withdrawal action in 2018, Coon said. Meanwhile, she said, “We’ll hope for permanent legislation also.”