Assessment goes to BLM for review; December deadline looms
The effort to protect the upper Methow Valley watershed from future mining has reached a significant milestone, with the U.S. Forest Service recommending that a proposed mineral withdrawal go forward.
The Forest Service released an Environmental Assessment (EA) last week examining the impacts of removing 340,079 acres of Forest Service land in the upper valley from new mining activities for up to 20 years. Based on that EA and other information analyzed, the Forest Service supported withdrawing the land for 20 years “while Congress considers legislation to permanently withdraw the lands, and to protect the value of ecological and recreational resources of the Methow Valley.”
The completion of the EA is a key step in a complex process that would put protections in place for the large tract — about 531 square miles — of rugged, mountainous terrain above Mazama. The 20-year withdrawal allows time to consider legislation, currently pending in Congress, to permanently protect the public lands.
“This is an important and greatly appreciated step forward in protecting the rural character, spectacular landscapes, and clean water that support local prosperity and jobs,” said Maggie Coon, a leader of the Methow Headwaters Campaign, a grassroots effort to protect the upper valley from mining.
The Forest Service’s EA and its recommendation supporting withdrawal goes to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Department of the Interior, which will review the application for withdrawal and make a final decision. The BLM must now schedule a public meeting, which will be held in the Methow Valley, before a Dec. 29 deadline. That date marks the end of a required two-year study period, called segregation, that is part of the withdrawal process.
Local residents, business owners and elected officials have been lobbying hard during the past two years to push the withdrawal process forward. Proponents include the state’s congressional delegation, including Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, and Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican. Murray and Cantwell have introduced legislation in Congress called the Methow Headwaters Protection Act that would provide permanent protection against mining.
While Congress considers that legislation, the land needs to remain in its current environmental condition, a goal that would be accomplished through the 20-year mineral withdrawal.
“At a time when so much of our environment and public lands are under attack, this is incredibly welcome news,” Murray said in a joint statement with Cantwell and Newhouse. “It’s been my mission to carry the concerns of the Methow Valley community to Washington, D.C., to make sure we are protecting this environmentally sensitive area and continuing to support the valley’s thriving outdoor recreation economy.”
Newhouse called the Methow Valley headwaters “an ecological treasure” and said he would work with Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke “to have this withdrawal finalized.”
“From salmon to farming and outdoor recreation, the Methow Valley holds a special place in the Washington way of life,” Cantwell said. “We can’t afford to lose this area to copper mining.”
“It’s gratifying that the agencies and our congressional supporters have worked diligently to move this process forward,” said Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody, after hearing of the Forest Service’s recommendation. ”We are looking forward to working with the Department of Interior on a positive conclusion.” Ing-Moody, along with several other local business and community members, traveled to Washington, D.C., twice in the past year to lobby for the withdrawal.
Campaign for withdrawal
The effort to protect the upper Methow Valley began after a Canadian copper mining company announced its intention in 2013 to drill exploratory holes on Flagg Mountain near Mazama, to assess if there is a copper deposit worth mining. The Forest Service began environmental analysis of the proposed drilling. The prospect of an open pit copper mine near the Methow River headwaters prompted creation of the Headwaters Campaign in 2016 and the push for withdrawal.
About 4,500 comments were received by the BLM during a 90-day comment period on proposed withdrawal that began Dec. 30, 2016. Most comments “were in support on the proposed withdrawal and centered on concerns related to the presumed resource impacts from full-scale copper mining,” the EA said.
Comments favoring withdrawal focused on “social, biological and ecological values, such as clean water, scenic values, and associated opportunities such as recreation, hunting and fishing, and wilderness experiences,” the EA said.
The Forest Service EA examined three alternatives — a 20-year and a 5-year withdrawal, as well as a mandatory “no action” alternative. A mineral withdrawal prevents new mining claims or other mining activities. Because the proposed withdrawal is “strictly administrative,” it does not involve any ground-disturbing activities, and no other land management activities are affected by the mineral withdrawal, the EA said.
In this regard, the assessment of the mineral withdrawal differs from typical environmental assessments, the EA noted. Most analyses focus on the environment impacts of a proposed action. The analysis of the mineral withdrawal is unusual because the proposed action “would forestall mining disturbance and activities but have no direct effects on the land or other land use actions.”
The EA basically concluded that the 5-year or 20-year withdrawals would maintain the area’s status quo regarding issues including aquatics, fisheries, plants, wildlife, hydrology, recreation and economics.
The no-action alternative would mean the area would remain open to mining exploration and activities. If site-specific mining activities are proposed, required environmental analyses would be conducted to assess potential impacts, the EA said.
In its discussion of recreation impacts, the EA noted that the “area’s natural beauty, outdoor recreation assets, and sense of place have drawn residents, businesses, and visitors from across the country.” The proposed withdrawal meets a Department of the Interior secretarial order calling for “enhancing recreational fishing” to provide more opportunities for sportsmen and conservationists.
The withdrawal is consistent with another secretarial order to expand recreational opportunities to “‘provide additional revenue for fish and wildlife conservation and for many small rural communities across America.’ Many local businesses rely on Methow Valley’s recreation fishing industry for revenue,” the EA said.
The EA described the no-withdrawal alternative as having potential effects on recreation and visual resources if mining activities were permitted on the Forest Service lands, after undergoing required environmental and administrative reviews.
“If all requirements for mineral development were achieved, exploring activities might be seen from the highest peaks in the Pasayten Wilderness, the peaks in the Liberty Bell proposed wilderness, the overlook on Washington Pass Road, and the higher elevations of the North Cascades National Park,” the EA said.
Rich mining history
The EA found that the withdrawal area “has a rich mining history with approximately 34 prospects or projects documented as active prior to the 1940s.” Most of the claims were concentrated just north of the town of Mazama along Goat Creek and at the headwaters of Eightmile Creek/Billy goat Mountain, according to the EA. “Exploratory drilling over the past 70 years has not confirmed a reserve,” the EA stated.
There are currently five posted and maintained claims on about 103 acres, but no mining development has occurred since the 1940s, and “there are no records indicating recent, proposed or approved plans of operations,” the EA said.
Even after a mineral withdrawal takes place, existing mining claims within the area may be developed, but only after a “minerals validity examination determines a discovery of a valuable mineral deposit existed at the time of the segregation.”
And, even if a valid existing right is established, “there could still be a decade or more to verify an economic deposit,” which means proving that mining would be economically feasible based on industry demand, the EA said.
With the completion of the EA and the Forest Service’s recommendation, the next step in the process will be scheduling a public meeting in the Methow Valley prior to Dec. 29, said Michael Campbell, a public information officer for the BLM.
“BLM and Forest Service staff will be on hand” to discuss the proposal, and will accept any feedback or public comments. It will then be up to Interior Secretary Zinke to make a decision.
If a decision on withdrawal is not made prior to Dec. 29, the segregation period would expire, and the area would be open again to staking claims or other mining activities, Campbell said. The Interior Secretary retains the option of deciding on withdrawal after that date, however, he said.
“It can sit for years and years and the [withdrawal] application remains open and is still valid,” Campbell said.