Legislation sought to prevent copper mining near Mazama

By Ann McCreary

The campaign against future copper mining in the upper Methow Valley took to the air Tuesday (Sept. 20) with plane flights over the remote and rugged mountains that are the headwaters of the Methow River.

The Methow Headwaters campaign, which is seeking to protect 340,079 acres of U.S. Forest Service land in the upper valley from future mining, sponsored flights for local media, government officials and conservation groups to illustrate why the campaign wants to make the area off-limits to mining.

The flights offered breathtaking views of the craggy, snow-capped Cascade Mountains surrounding the Methow Valley, and a birds-eye view of a basin below Goat Peak in Mazama where a Canadian mining company proposes to drill for copper to evaluate the possibility of mining the area.

Campaign organizers said Tuesday they had received good news. Federal legislation calling for withdrawal of the large tract of federal land from future mining was scheduled for a hearing Thursday (Sept. 22) before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The legislation, co-sponsored by Washington Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, would permanently withdraw the 340,079 acres from future mineral exploration or extraction.

Photo by Ann McCrearyThe headwaters of the Methow River originate in rugged mountains surrounding the valley.

Photo by Ann McCreary

The headwaters of the Methow River originate in rugged mountains surrounding the valley.

“We’re very excited this bill is getting a hearing. It’s a positive step forward,” said Mike Collins, a spokesman for the Methow Headwaters campaign.

The legislation was endorsed last week by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who praised it for “protecting the Methow River Valley from industrial-scale mining activities that would be injurious to the region, and are opposed by the local community.”

The Methow Valley’s tourism-based economy, which attracts 1 million people and contributes more than $150 million each year to Okanogan County’s economy, is “dependent on a clean and healthy natural environment,” Inslee said in a letter to Cantwell and Murray.

“While mineral extraction makes sense in some areas, this region of our state is unique. The importance of preventing the degradation of this river valley’s headwaters, and the related negative impact on mining activity on fish and wildlife, cannot be overstated,” Inslee said.

Another option

The Methow Headwaters campaign is also pursuing another option for withdrawal of the land. Earlier this year campaign organizers sent a letter, signed by 90 local business owners, to the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Forest Service requesting they use their administrative authority to withdraw the area.

While no mining is currently proposed, the anti-mining campaign was prompted by a request submitted to the Forest Service in 2013 by Blue River Resources LLC, a Canadian-based mining company, to drill test holes to explore for copper deposits near Flagg Mountain in Mazama.

In more good news for the anti-mining campaign, the opportunity to begin exploratory drilling this year has passed, and a decision on the request has been delayed again, said Methow District Ranger Mike Liu. A permit to drill from the district is needed before the project could begin.

Liu said Tuesday that the Forest Service is “still trying to resolve concerns expressed by the Colville Tribe.”

Members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation last month met with Forest Service officials to express concerns about the exploratory drilling and potential for future mining in the upper Methow Valley.

The concerns focused on harm to natural resources, as well as the tribes’ cultural and spiritual connections to that land.

Earlier this year, Liu had said he expected studies to be completed and a decision on the drilling by the summer. “We have obviously missed this year’s operating season,” Liu said this week. There will “probably [be] no decision before next season,” he said.

Exploratory drilling, if it were permitted, would not be allowed before Aug. 1 to avoid disturbing the nesting season of northern spotted owls, a federally protected species that may live in the Flagg Mountain area.

Drilling would have to end by Nov. 30, because Goat Creek Road, which provides access to the proposed drill sites, is closed and groomed as a snowmobile trail after that date.

The flights sponsored by the Methow Headwaters campaign this week carried passengers in a six-seat, single-engine plane over Mazama and the high mountains surrounding the valley where the Methow River has its origins.

Unique area

The area is unique because it brings together northern boreal forests, shrub steppe environments and the wetter forests of the west side of the Cascades, said Scott Fitkin, a biologist with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife who pointed out natural features during the flight.

That combination “produces a tremendous diversity of flora, which produces a tremendous diversity of fauna,” Fitkin said. The area is home to an array of wildlife including bears — perhaps even grizzlies, wolverines, wolves, spotted owls and salmon, he said.

The state of Washington has spent millions of dollars to protect and enhance the Methow watershed and its wildlife, Fitkin said.

“When you think of all the work we’ve done in this watershed … it’s hard for me to think of a less-compatible location for a mine. To put a copper mine in the midst of all this effort is an absolute travesty,” Fitkin said.

The flights were provided by a nonprofit organization called EcoFlight, based in Aspen, Colorado. Pilot Bruce Gordon said he founded EcoFlight “to educate and advocate for the environment using small airplanes.”

Seeing the landscape from the air provides a new perspective that spurs people into action, Gordon said.

“We give the land a voice. We want people to get involved and learn about the issues,” he said.

Gordon said he has flown over wild areas all around the country, but this was his first venture into the North Cascades.

“This is as special a place as I know, and I fly everywhere,” he said.

The drilling proposal by Blue River Resources has been in process since 2013 by the Methow Ranger District. But environmental studies and a decision on the application have been slowed by extensive public comment, wildfires that diverted district staff, and more recently by concerns raised by the Colville tribes.