World photo/K.C. Mehaffey
MAZAMA — Gov. Jay Inslee has agreed to support a push to remove some 340,000 acres of public land in the Methow Valley from mineral exploration and extraction.
A Sept. 14 letter to U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell outlines his support for the Methow Headwaters Protection Act of 2016, which will be heard before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday.
“The valley lies in an area of our state where the economy is dependent on a clean and healthy natural environment, and in which a commitment to conservation is critical. Approximately 1 million people visit the valley each year, and contribute over $150 million to the Okanogan County economy,” he wrote. “The importance of preventing the degradation of this river valley’s headwaters, and the related negative impacts of mining activity on fish and wildlife, cannot be overstated.”
The governor’s letter is the most recent support won by Methow Headwaters Campaign, a group of Methow Valley citizens and businesses that formed this year to prevent a Canadian mining company from developing a copper mine on national forest land that is highly visible from Mazama.
Blue River Resources, Ltd., based in Vancouver, B.C., has asked the U.S. Forest Service for a permit for exploratory drilling on Flagg Mountain, overlooking Mazama where tourists flock for world-class mountain biking, cross country skiing, mountain climbing and hiking.
So far, some 5,000 citizens have signed a petition, and about 130 businesses and 26 nonprofit groups have offered their support to Methow Headwaters’ proposal to remove public land around the upper Methow Valley from mining.
Blue River’s permit application was delayed this summer after the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation expressed concerns about the mining.
Also this summer, the Twisp Town Council passed a resolution supporting the withdrawal of Methow Valley lands from public land available for mineral exploration.
On Tuesday, EcoFlight, a nonprofit Aspen, Colorado-based organization that supports education on environmental issues by providing a perspective from the air, flew representatives of the media, government agencies and environmental groups to the site.
Scott Fitkin, a wildlife biologist for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, described the area’s unique biodiversity where northern boreal forests meets desert shrub-steppe. “It all comes together here. You can be up on the crest seeing wolverines, and an hour later, you’re down here with pygmy short-horned lizards and rattlesnakes,” he said. From Canada lynx and wolves to spotted owls and endangered salmon, he said, “All occur in the same spot, and that doesn’t occur anywhere else.”
Maggie Coon, spokeswoman for the Methow Headwaters Campaign, said Flagg Mountain is literally surrounded by protected areas: the 153,000-acre Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness to the west, the 532,000-acre Pasayten Wilderness to the north, and the 505,000-acre North Cascades National Park to the northwest.
“One of the most striking things to me about this proposed mine is the way it’s surrounded by these protected areas,” she said.
National mining laws allow federal agencies to set requirements on how mines are developed and reclaimed, but offer few tools to deny new mining projects, she noted. A mineral withdrawal is one of the only options to prevent Blue River’s efforts, she added.
Coon said with Inslee’s support, the group is now anxious to see what federal agencies have to say about Cantwell and Murray’s proposed bill, which will receive testimony in a U.S. Senate committee tomorrow.