Forest Service, BLM still planning a community meeting
By Ann McCreary
No dates have been announced yet for a new public comment period on a proposal to withdraw more than 340,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land in the upper Methow Valley from future mining.
An initial 90-day comment period on the proposal ended March 30; however a required public meeting on the issue was never held before the comment period ended.
Federal officials said in April that a new public comment period and a public meeting would be scheduled.
The proposal calls for making 340,047 acres of Forest Service land at the headwaters of the Methow River off limits to any new mineral exploration or mining for up to 20 years.
Called a “mineral withdrawal,” the process was initiated last December by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency responsible for mineral withdrawals, as the result of a local campaign to protect the area from future mining.
“We’re still working with the Forest Service, regarding a notice for the public meeting for the proposed withdrawal,” Michael Campbell, a public affairs officer for the BLM, said last week.
The notice of a public meeting and a public comment period must be published in the Federal Register, Campbell said.
“We process all the formal notices through our national office. With the current transition of administration, the times associated with Federal Register notices are taking a little longer than we had originally estimated,” he said.
“We are still trying to get a notice published,” Campbell said. A legal notice of a new comment period and public meeting would also appear in the Methow Valley News, he said.
The first step of a mineral withdrawal is called “segregation,” a two-year period during which the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service evaluate whether to proceed with a withdrawal that would prevent new mining activities for up to 20 years.
After a new comment period is completed, federal agencies would likely conduct an environmental assessment in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, said Campbell. That process would include further opportunities for public comment, he said.
A second approach that would permanently protect the federal land — through Congressional action — is also underway.
Washington Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, both Democrats, co-sponsored legislation last year that would permanently withdraw the land from mining. Called the Methow Headwaters Protection Act, the bill was reintroduced this year and passed out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The next step would be action on the floor of the Senate.
Efforts to protect the upper reaches of the Methow watershed from mining has been spearheaded by the Methow Headwaters Campaign. The local campaign was launched in 2016 in response to a proposal by a Canadian-based company to conduct exploratory drilling for copper on Flagg Mountain in Mazama, sparking fears of future large scale, open pit mining in the scenic upper valley.
Even if the area were withdrawn through administrative or legislative action, mining exploration or extraction would still be allowed on pre-existing mining claims that are proved by the claimant to be valid. Proving validity, however, can be a complex process, according to federal officials.