Bill reintroduced to protect Methow headwaters from mining

Murray, Cantwell support action in U.S. Senate

By:  Marcy Stamper
Source: Methow Valley News

A bill that would permanently withdraw more than 340,000 acres in the headwaters of the Methow River from mining and new mineral exploration was re-introduced in the U.S. Senate last week.

Washington senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell reintroduced the Methow Headwaters Protection Act on March 8, since the previous Congress adjourned without acting on the legislation. It was initially submitted last June.

The bill is one of two strategies being pursued by the Methow Headwaters Campaign to protect the land on Flagg Mountain near Mazama from mining and exploratory drilling. If the Murray/Cantwell bill becomes law, it would make the protections from mining permanent, according to according to Bryan Watt, press secretary for Cantwell.

The other strategy, which is also in the works, is called a segregation, and puts the land off-limits to new mineral exploration and mining for the next two years. During that time, the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Department of the Interior will evaluate whether to extend the temporary withdrawal for 20 years.

The segregation was declared in December by former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in support of Murray and Cantwell’s bill, according to Watt. A 90-day public comment period on the proposed mineral segregation is underway and scheduled to end at the end of March.

After the public comment period closes, the federal land agencies will issue an environmental review — either an environmental analysis or a more in-depth environmental impact statement — and then a final decision, said Watt.

A segregation is, practically speaking, the same as a withdrawal, but it covers a shorter period, said Watt. Nevertheless, an administrative withdrawal can only be temporary. An act of Congress — such as passing the Methow Headwaters Protection Act into law — is necessary to make a mineral withdrawal permanent, said Watt.

Legislation vital

The temporary withdrawal declared by Jewell could be cut short. The Department of Interior could put out a public notification that the segregation is withdrawn, said Watt, which he said “underlies the importance of the legislation.”

“No matter what the political climate in Congress is, it’s critical that we keep fighting to preserve and protect the Methow Valley watershed for future generations,” Sen. Murray said.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke was sworn in on March 1 and is not known to have taken a position on the Methow headwaters mining issue.

The Methow Headwaters Campaign is a nonprofit launched last February in opposition to a proposal by a Canadian mining company to drill holes to explore for copper near Mazama. Blue River Resources has applied for a permit to drill up to 15 exploratory holes on Flagg Mountain to assess whether valuable copper deposits are present.

Since then, the Headwaters Campaign has attracted support from 135 businesses, organizations and community groups, as well as more than 2,000 individuals. The towns of Twisp and Winthrop have both passed resolutions in support of the mineral withdrawal.

The Forest Service has been processing Blue River’s application, which was submitted in 2013. Processing the application and conducting the environmental analysis have been delayed by wildfires, which diverted Forest Service staff, according to Methow Valley District Ranger Mike Liu.

A public hearing is required as part of the 90-day review period on the segregation. Federal officials plan to schedule the hearing in the Methow Valley. Because there is a requirement that the public be notified of the date at least 30 days in advance of the hearing, the Headwaters Campaign expects the comment period to be extended, according to Maggie Coon, one of the campaign leaders.