By Ann McCreary
Federal legislation aimed at protecting more than 340,000 acres in the upper Methow Valley has been included as part of a larger bill called the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Act of 2017.
The Energy and Natural Resources Act, introduced last week by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, includes a proposal to withdraw the U.S. Forest Service land at the headwaters of the Methow River from future mining exploration or mineral extraction.
Cantwell and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, introduced a bill in Congress called the Methow Headwaters Protection Act in 2016 and again this year. The measure passed out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in March. The language calling for the mineral withdrawal is now included in the larger Energy and Natural Resources Act.
If approved by Congress and not vetoed by the president, the mineral withdrawal legislation would make 340,047 acres of land in the upper Methow Valley permanently off-limits to future mining activities.
“It’s another step along the way and we’re pleased. It’s good to have it in play,” said Maggie Coon, a leader of the Methow Headwaters Campaign, a local organization formed last year to protect the land from mining.
The campaign to protect the land was launched in response to plans by a Canadian company to conduct exploratory drilling to assess copper deposits on Flagg Mountain near Mazama. The proposed drilling raised concerns about the possibility of future industrial scale mining in the scenic upper valley, and the campaign has drawn support from local residents, business owners, elected officials and tribal members.
In addition to seeking protection through legislation, the campaign has also lobbied for an alternative approach, which would withdraw the land from mining activities through federal agency action.
The federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has initiated the first step in that process, called “segregation,” which is a two-year period during which the Forest Service and Department of Interior evaluate whether to extend the withdrawal period for up to 20 years.
A 90-day comment period on the proposed withdrawal began at the end of December 2016 and ended on March 30. However, a required public meeting during the comment period was never held, so a new public comment period and public meeting is expected to be scheduled, according to the BLM.
A spokesman for the BLM said in late April that the federal agencies were working to set a date for the new comment period and for a public meeting, which would be held in the Methow Valley. No date had been announced as of this week.
“We’re in conversation with the agencies about the public meeting,” Coon said. “We’re hoping that will occur in the near future.”