Advocates hoping for action by end of year
A final decision on protecting the headwaters of the Methow River from future mining now rests with Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
The application for a mineral withdrawal, which would put a 20-year moratorium on mining in the upper Methow Valley, has been completed and sent to Washington, D.C., for review by Zinke. It’s the final step in a three-year-long, grassroots effort to protect 340,079 acres — about 531 square miles — of U.S. Forest Service land in mountains near Mazama.
The documentation for the mineral withdrawal, which has been recommended by the Forest Service, was prepared and sent off by the Portland office of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency that manages mineral activities on federal lands.
The package of information was completed a few days after the BLM held a Nov. 13 public meeting at the Winthrop Barn that drew more than 400 people in a show of support for the mining ban. As promised at the public meeting, the withdrawal application was finalized and sent to Washington, D.C., on Nov. 16, said Hannah Dewey, outreach coordinator for the Methow Headwaters Campaign, which has led the effort to protect the upper valley from mining.
The withdrawal application is reviewed by the director of the BLM and by an assistant secretary in the Department of Interior before going to Interior Secretary Zinke for a final decision, said Maggie Coon, a leader of the Methow Headwaters Campaign.
“Our understanding is it’s being reviewed at the highest level. We’re waiting with bated breath,” Coon said.
If the mineral withdrawal is approved, no new mining activities will be permitted on the designated Forest Service lands for 20 years. The moratorium was sought in order to provide time for Congress to consider legislation that would permanently protect the area from mining.
Legislation called the Methow Headwaters Protection Act has been introduced in Congress by Washington’s senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats. The 20-year withdrawal ensures that the land will remain in its current environmental condition while Congress considers permanent protection.
The proposed withdrawal has drawn broad, bipartisan support, with backing from the region’s Republican congressional representative, Dan Newhouse, and by the Okanogan Board of County Commissioners, which recently sent a letter of support signed by all three commissioners to Zinke. The Okanogan Trails Chapter of the Mule Deer Foundation also recently sent a letter endorsing withdrawal, joining a diverse group of organizations supporting a ban on mining.
Although a formal public comment period has ended, citizens can still submit comments on the Methow Headwaters website that will be forwarded to Zinke, Dewey said.
The effort to protect the upper Methow Valley began after a Canadian copper 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 future open-pit copper mining prompted creation of the Methow Headwaters Campaign, which argued that the impacts of mining would be devastating for the environment and the tourism-based economy of the Methow Valley.
The campaign has gained momentum during the past three years, with more than 150 local businesses supporting the withdrawal as vital to protecting the local economy. The BLM has received more than 5,000 comments from individual and organizations, the vast majority in support of the mineral withdrawal. At last month’s public meeting, every comment was in opposition to mining.
In a letter sent last month to Zinke, the Okanogan County commissioners expressed united support for the withdrawal. “In a county that embraces resource development and has a long history of mining, it is widely recognized that this specific proposal for the Methow Valley has merit,” the letter said.
Supporting the withdrawal, commissioners said, “supports the desires of the county we represent, the continued growth of the regional economy, and the protection of precious water supplies that are the region’s most important resource.”
Essential to economy
The local Mule Deer Foundation chapter, in its letter to Zinke, said the Methow Valley “is the place to go for the best mule deer hunting in Washington.” Mule deer migrate directly through and use the area being considered for withdrawal, the foundation said.
“A mineral withdrawal of the Methow Headwaters is essential to the valley and the greater region as it safeguards the resources and values that underpin the local economy and allow this rural community to thrive,” the Mule Deer Foundation said. “More than a million visitors a year come here to hike, mountain bike, snowmobile, ski, climb, wildlife watch and hunt and fish.”
Advocates of the withdrawal are hoping that Zinke will approve the Methow Headwaters mineral withdrawal by Dec. 30, when a two-year study period on the proposed withdrawal ends. During that period, called “segregation,” the area is off-limits to any mining exploration or extraction.
If a decision on withdrawal is not made prior to that end-of-year deadline, the area would be open again to staking claims or other mining activities, said Michael Campbell, a public relations officer for the BLM. The Interior Secretary retains the option of deciding on withdrawal after that date, however, Campbell said.
In October, Zinke approved a similar 20-year mining moratorium on 30,000 acres of federal land north of Yellowstone Park, in his home state of Montana. Two mining companies wanted to drill for gold, and local business owners and conservationists led the opposition on the grounds that mining could harm wildlife, water quality and the region’s tourism-based economy.
“I’m a pro-mining guy,” Zinke said at a ceremony in Montana finalizing the withdrawal. “But there’s places to mine and places not to mine.”