December, and 2018, ended on a flat note for proponents of a federally imposed moratorium on industrial mining in the upper Methow Valley. After three years of vigorous effort that involved a cross-section of the community, and generated almost unanimous accord on what could have been a divisive issue, the application for a 20-year hold on future mining in the Methow Headwaters simply ran out of time.
There is no rational explanation for that outcome, only palpable frustration.
The application for mineral withdrawal was intended to suspend mining on 340,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land. After a complicated and time-consuming process, one final action was needed by Dec. 30: Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke needed to sign it. The deadline marked the expiration of a two-year study period, called “segregation,” that is required before a mineral withdrawal can be approved.
But Zinke resigned his office before putting his signature to the proposal, which means mining efforts could possibly resume in the headwaters area.
As far as we can tell, no one tried to kill the withdrawal proposal, which had support within the U.S. Department of the Interior. It died of neglect or indifference by the one person who could make the withdrawal a reality.
We can blame Zinke for his failure to bring closure to the process, but he was in many respects a frail vessel in which to invest the community’s hopes. He was inconsistent on some major environmental issues, appallingly wrong on many others, and blithely arrogant about his imperious behavior. The interior secretary was facing investigations into his questionable business dealings, travel and policy decisions when he exited his office.
But he was what we had. Many in the Methow had to hold their noses and say neutral things, or nothing at all, about Zinke while the withdrawal process slowly advanced toward his desk.
This wasn’t even a tough or risk-fraught political call for Zinke. The withdrawal application had wide and bipartisan — or nonpartisan — support and no meaningful opposition. He could have made everyone involved happy and earned some accolades with a win-win action, then reverted to his usual attack mode on the environment.
Instead, Zinke did a last-minute runner and probably left a lot of other things hanging as well. The federal government shutdown at the end of the year further complicated the process.
This was not a case of intransigence by the federal bureaucracy, which often gets the blame when good ideas sink from sight. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, and even Zinke’s assistant secretary who visited the Methow Valley, kept the effort alive and moving.
Despite the disappointment, all is not lost. There are still options to pursue.
The goal of the Methow Headwaters Campaign, the nonprofit organization that spearheaded the withdrawal effort, has been permanent protection for the upper valley, which can only be achieved by legislation in Congress.
Washington senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, have introduced legislation called the “Methow Headwaters Protection Act” that would permanently remove the area from future mining. The act was introduced in 2016 and 2017, and would need to be reintroduced in the next session of Congress. Or, the withdrawal proposal could be approved by a future Secretary of the Interior. But until that happens, the headwaters could be open to mining exploration.
Headwaters Campaign leaders say their efforts will now shift gears, which is good news for the entire valley. This community has invested too much time, effort and human goodwill to give up on protecting vital public land from the potentially devastating effects of large-scale mining. We owe everyone involved — including the 400-plus people who showed up at a public meeting in Winthrop to advocate for the withdrawal — a thank you for their interest and efforts. It’s going to take more of the same. But the Methow has demonstrated time and again that it is not a place that gives up easily.