Stress economic issues in pushing for ‘withdrawal’ of federal land
By Ann McCreary
Advocating for protection of the upper Methow Valley from future mining, a three-person delegation from the valley traveled to Washington, D. C., last week to meet with Congressional representatives and federal agency officials.
The goal of the trip was to push for progress on a proposal to withdraw 342,000 acres of federal U.S. Forest Service land in the upper Methow Valley from possible future mining, an effort that has been led for the past two years by the local Methow Headwaters Campaign.
Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody was joined by David Gottula, Winthrop Chamber of Commerce president and general manager of the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative, and Maggie Coon of the Methow Headwaters Campaign. They spent three days in the capital connecting with people who have the ability to influence the effort to protect the upper valley.
The group was particularly pleased to have an opportunity to meet with the new chief of the Forest Service, Tony Tooke. The Forest Service plays a key role in determining whether the land, located in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, should be withdrawn from mining activities. The agency is currently conducting an environmental analysis of the proposed action, which is called a mineral withdrawal.
Ing-Moody said the meeting with Tooke provided an opportunity to describe to him how mining in the scenic upper reaches of the Methow River watershed could impact the environment, particularly water quality, and the valley’s economy.
“He’ll remember us now. He got to know our community and some of our needs,” Ing-Moody said this week after returning to Twisp.
“With the Forest Service, one of their priorities is they are partners, and in this community they are neighbors. He recognized, as a good neighbor, what the local concerns are in regard to the mineral withdrawal and how important that is to us,” she said.
“The Forest Service plays a large role in the health and vitality of our economy, which is dependent on outdoor recreation. It was meaningful to him to recognize how our community could be impacted. We requested this [mineral withdrawal] be moved forward as quickly as possible. We painted a real picture to him that the Forest Service plays a vital role in our community and in our economy,” Ing-Moody said.
The three met with Congressional representatives, including Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Dan Newhouse, and staff members from the offices of Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Dave Reichert. They also met with the Washington representative of Governor Jay Inslee, and with staff of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
It was almost a year ago that the BLM took the first official step toward the mineral withdrawal, called “segregation,” which is a two-year period during which the Forest Service and Department of Interior evaluate whether to extend the withdrawal for up to 20 years.
After the two-year segregation was announced by the BLM last Dec. 30, a 90-day public comment period began. However, a required public meeting about the segregation was never held. BLM officials have said the delay was caused in part by the change in agency personnel after the election of Donald Trump.
“We have been trying to move forward, particularly since it was a year ago that segregation began,” Coon said. She said they learned that the person who needs to authorize the public meeting has only recently been appointed. The responsibility lies with Joe Balash, assistant secretary of lands and minerals in the Department of the Interior, Coon said.
Staff at the BLM, an agency within the Interior Department, told them that the “staff level work has been done” on the segregation process, she said.
“There is plenty of time for the process to play out. At the same time, we need to keep the process moving,” Coon said. She is hopeful that a public meeting will occur in early 2018, and the draft environmental assessment by the Forest Service may be completed early next year as well.
The Methow Headwaters Campaign has stressed the economic impacts that potential mining would have on an economy that is based on tourism and outdoor recreation, which in turn depend on preserving the Methow Valley’s natural environment. The campaign has been endorsed by about 150 businesses, organizations, tribes and community groups, and about 2,000 individuals.
Coon said they learned during their visit to Washington, D.C., of a new “rural prosperity task force” appointed by President Trump and headed by Sonny Perdue, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. “Our message connects well with the notion of rural prosperity, especially given the overwhelming support of our business community … we need (to protect) the environment to protect the economy.”
Gottula said the message of “respecting local government authority” also resonates in Washington under the current administration, and may mean greater support for the local Headwaters Campaign. “There is more emphasis on what local communities want, and respecting what their views are,” he said.
The mineral withdrawal campaign has bipartisan support from Washington’s Democratic Senators and Republican House members, Gottula added. “There is wide political support.”
Mineral withdrawal for the 342,000 acres has also been proposed in legislation co-sponsored by Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell in 2016 and 2017. Legislation would authorize permanent withdrawal, while agency action is limited to a 20-year period. The legislation is currently stalled in Congress.
The Methow Headwaters Campaign was launched in 2016 in response to plans by a Canadian mining company to conduct exploratory drilling to assess copper deposits on Flagg Mountain near Mazama. Campaign leaders warned that the drilling could open the door to future development of open pit copper mining in the scenic upper valley. Last week’s trip to Washington D.C. was funded by donations to the campaign, Coon said.
In addition to advocating for the mineral withdrawal, Ing-Moody said they also urged the Forest Service chief and members of Congress to support retaining the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in the Methow Valley and to support trails restoration in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.