By Ann McCreary
More than 340,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land in the upper Methow Valley are closed to new mineral exploration and mining for the next two years, while federal agencies evaluate whether the land should be protected for up to 20 years.
In a victory for the local Methow Headwaters Campaign, which has worked to protect the upper valley from potential future mining, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Washington D.C. issued a “notice of segregation” on Friday (Dec. 30), which makes the federal land off-limits to mining for two years.
“This has been a great gift for the end of the year,” said Maggie Coon, a leader of the Methow Headwaters Campaign. The campaign has pushed to accomplish the segregation before the Obama administration leaves office in January.
“We are thrilled that this step has been taken and we are especially grateful to our senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, for their leadership with this,” Coon said.
The segregation notice begins a two-year period during which the Forest Service and Department of the Interior evaluate whether to extend the temporary withdrawal for 20 years.
The notice, published in the Federal Register, also begins a 90-day public comment period that ends March 30.
Coon said she expects that Murray and Cantwell, both Democrats, will reintroduce legislation in 2017 called the Methow Headwaters Protection Act, which the senators introduced last May. That legislation calls for permanent withdrawal of the 340,047 acres at the headwaters of the Methow River from mining activities.
The notice of segregation states that the request by the Forest Service to withdraw the land is made to “protect the value of ecological and recreational resources of the Methow Valley and to protect the area while legislation to permanently withdraw the lands is being considered.”
The notice also states: “Recreation accounts for a substantial share of the Methow Valley community’s economy while the watershed provides habitat for several threatened and endangered species.”
“This action is a huge step forward in our fight to preserve and protect our state’s incredible resources for future generations,” Murray said. “I will continue to work with the community and my colleagues in Congress to make sure the Methow Valley is permanently protected from devastating mining operations.”
The Methow Headwaters Campaign was launched in February 2016 in response to plans by a Canadian company, Blue River Resources Ltd., to conduct exploratory drilling to assess copper deposits on Flagg Mountain near Mazama.
Campaign leaders feared that completion of the exploratory drilling could open the door to future development of large scale, open pit mining operations in the scenic upper Methow Valley, threatening the valley’s recreational economy and natural resources.
The campaign rallied support from more than 135 businesses, organizations, tribes and community groups, as well as 2,000 individuals who signed on in support of the campaign.
“The community in the Methow Valley is united in its desire to maintain the area’s rural character and safeguard the lands and waters at the heart of the local economy,” said State Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee.
“I appreciate that the Department of Interior realizes the importance of the Methow Headwaters and has initiated the withdrawal process in response to the community’s appeal,” Parlette said.
“We have supported the Methow Headwaters mineral withdrawal because he Methow is aboriginal territory for the Colville Tribes that must be maintained for future generals to enjoy and steward,” said Michael Marchand, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation
“The protection that a mineral withdrawal offers these lands will complement the Colville Tribes’ longstanding and ongoing efforts to restore critical habitat in the Methow with federal, state and local partners,” Marchand said.
The two-year segregation closes the land subject to valid existing rights. That means that existing, valid claims are not affected by the current segregation or future withdrawal.
Therefore, the application to conduct exploratory drilling on claims held by Blue River Resources in Mazama will continue to be processed by the Methow Valley Ranger District, said Mike Liu, district ranger.
“At this point we believe that Blue River Resources has an existing right … until proven otherwise we will treat it as valid,” he said.
Blue River Resources proposes drilling up to 15 exploratory holes, up to 980 feet deep, to evaluate copper deposits. The company first approached the Forest Service in 2013 with its proposal.
“Obviously the company would like to still proceed with the project,” Liu said Friday (Dec. 30).
Much of the environmental review of the Blue River drilling proposal has been completed, with the exception of concerns raised by the Colville tribes last fall, Liu said. Those concerns related to impacts to the tribes’ cultural and spiritual connections to the land in the upper Methow Valley.
Liu said the Forest Service has been working with the tribes to better understand those concerns, and determine whether they can be mitigated. “We’ve asked them to clarify how exploratory drilling would impact sites that have cultural or spiritual significance to them,” Liu said.
If the concerns brought by the tribes cannot be resolved, the project may require an Environmental Assessment. It is currently being considered as “categorically excluded” from more extensive study because the project lasts less than a year and proposes no new road construction.
If the Forest Service finds, however, that the Colville’s concerns qualify as “extraordinary circumstances” that involve significant impacts, the project could require a more-detailed analysis and public comment, Liu said.
Liu said most of the work to evaluate whether the 340,079 acres should be withdrawn for 20 years will probably be done by staff of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, although local staff of the ranger district will likely be involved in providing information and support for that study.
The local business community is strongly in favor of protecting the upper Methow Valley, said Julie Muyllaert, co-owner of Methow Cycle and Sport in Winthrop.
“The businesses in the valley recognize that our success depends on maintaining the area’s spectacular lands, recreational resources, clean water and fresh air. For these important reasons we are committed to achieving a mineral withdrawal for the Methow Headwaters.”
Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody said the Twisp Town Council passed a resolution in support of mineral withdrawal last summer “to protect our water, the local economy, and the well-being of our citizens. Today’s announcement about the withdrawal is good news that reinforces our efforts on behalf of Twisp residents and future generations,” Ing-Moody said Friday.
A local meeting on the proposed mineral withdrawal is expected to be held in the Methow Valley early in 2017, Coon said.
Comments on the proposal should be sent to: BLM Oregon/Washington State Director, P.O. Box 2965, Portland, OR 97208-2965.