Bipartisan package includes mining ban in upper Methow Valley
Permanent protection from mining for scenic land in the upper Methow Valley is included in a broad bipartisan package of public lands bills that was approved by the U.S. Senate Tuesday (Feb. 12).
The bipartisan legislation includes the Methow Headwaters Protection Act among more than 110 other bills dealing with public lands, natural resources and water. The legislative package, called the Natural Resources Management Act, was co-sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). The largest bipartisan conservation package assembled by Congress in more than a decade, the legislation passed by a vote of 92-8.
Protecting the Methow headwaters from potential mining is an example of the “investment in our public lands” that the sweeping legislation provides, Cantwell said in a phone interview Tuesday. “The key thing here was to withdraw the mineral rights so that area could be protected.”
The Methow Headwaters Protection Act would prohibit mining on 340,079 acres — about 500 square miles — of U.S. Forest Service lands in the upper watershed of the Methow River, in scenic and rugged mountains around Mazama.
“An entire economy has grown up around access to recreation and the environment” in the Methow Valley and in other parts of the nation, Cantwell said. “This whole bill is an investment in public lands … that have become a juggernaut for our economy.”
“If we want to continue and grow, we have to protect resources, as we are with the Methow. The main issue is public lands are worth protecting. There’s no better example than the Methow,” Cantwell said.
The Methow Headwaters Campaign, a grassroots effort that has worked for three years to gain protection for the upper valley, emphasized the potential damage that mining would have on the Methow Valley’s tourism and recreation-based economy. The campaign was launched after a Canadian mining company indicated an interest in drilling for copper, to assess the potential for mining.
No enthusiasm shortage
The Headwaters Campaign organized public meetings, letter writing campaigns, and trips to Washington, D.C., to lobby congressional representatives and administration officials for a mineral withdrawal to prevent mining in the upper valley. Cantwell said the campaign’s determined efforts helped drive the message home.
“There is no shortage of enthusiasm in the Methow Valley,” Cantwell said. “Whoa! That is all I can say.” She said the effort to protect the Methow Valley has gained attention far outside the valley. “I love the fact that even the Washington Post asked me about the Methow,” she said.
News of the Senate’s passage of the Methow Headwaters Protection Act, as part of the larger legislative package, drew an elated response from Maggie Coon of Twisp, a leader of the Headwaters Campaign.
“There is so much excitement around the Headwaters Campaign. This is a huge milestone,” Coon said. “It’s hard to express the gratitude we have for the extraordinary leadership of Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray in championing this in the Senate. It’s been a long road and it’s been wonderful to work with them and their staff.”
Cantwell and Murray (D-Washington), had introduced the Methow Headwaters Protection Act as a separate bill in two previous legislative sessions, before it was included in the Natural Resources Management Act.
“The senators and their staffs took the time to visit the headwaters and immediately understood the risks if large-scale mining were to occur in the area. They quickly realized the impacts it would bring to our economy, our way of life and the water that sustains the entire valley,” Coon said.
“The community support for withdrawing the headwaters has been overwhelming,” said Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody, who has been a strong advocate for protecting the upper valley from mining. “In November more than 400 residents turned out for a community meeting with the Bureau of Land Management to endorse making these critical lands off-limits to industrial mining.”
“The Senate’s inclusion of the Methow Headwaters in the public lands package moves us closer to ensuring the future success of our communities,” Ing-Moody said.
The public lands legislation will now go to the U.S. House of Representatives, where it is expected to pass, Cantwell said. The Methow Headwaters Protection Act has been endorsed by Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican whose Congressional district includes the Methow Valley. The bill requires the president’s signature to become law, and Cantwell said she hopes the Trump administration will support it.
“I know people from [the Department of] Interior have come out to the Methow Valley. Hopefully they’re all on board with what the community and congressional representatives want,” she said.
Among other things, the Natural Resources Management Act will designate more than 1.3 million acres of new wilderness areas, 367 miles of new wild and scenic rivers, 2,600 miles of new national trails, and create four new National Monuments.
The Act also permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal conservation program established by Congress in 1964.
“This is a bipartisan issue. More than 60 senators wanted to save this program,” Cantwell said in a speech on the Senate floor Tuesday in support of her bill.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) expired on Sept. 30, 2018, marking the second time in three years that Congress failed to reauthorize and fund the program. The fund supports access to trails and outdoor recreation opportunities, as well as clean air and water programs.
It is a key component of the nation’s robust outdoor recreation economy, which generates over $887 billion in annual consumer spending and supports 7.6 million American jobs, according to a statement from Cantwell’s office.
In Washington state, the outdoor recreation economy contributes over $26 billion in consumer spending each year and supports over 200,000 direct jobs. Since its creation, LWCF has supported more than 600 projects in Washington state, including popular recreation sites such as Olympic National Park, Lake Chelan, and Riverside State Park, Cantwell’s statement said.
Bills included in the sweeping Natural Resources Management Act recognize “that our climate is changing, and that we need new tools to carry out new responsibilities for managing this land. We worked hard together to try to give resources to local communities and to maintain the national interest where the national interest is at stake,” Cantwell said.
“There is a bipartisan group in the U.S. Senate that wants to put more focus on saving public lands” rather than opening them up to drilling and mining, she said. “Public lands and access to public lands is a juggernaut to our economy. Let’s give the tools to local communities and local resources to manage those lands and do things to grow jobs and recreate.”
In addition to the Methow Headwaters Act, the legislation includes other bills of importance to Washington State, including:
Authorizing an integrated and collaborative approach to addressing water challenges in the Yakima Valley;
Providing modern technology to firefighting agencies across the nation to increase firefighter safety;
Improving volcano monitoring and early warning capabilities;
Designating the Mountain to Sound Greenway, 1.5 million acres of land from Ellensburg to Seattle, as the Pacific Northwest’s first National Heritage Area;
Designating the Nordic Museum in Seattle as the National Nordic Museum.