Washington

Methow Valley copper mine would be blocked under bill

At the confluence of the Chewuch and Methow rivers, Winthrop, Wash., grew up as a mining community. When opening of the North Cascades Highway brought tourists in the 1970s, the Okanogan County town adopted an Old West theme.
At the confluence of the Chewuch and Methow rivers, Winthrop, Wash., grew up as a mining community. When opening of the North Cascades Highway brought tourists in the 1970s, the Okanogan County town adopted an Old West theme. The Seattle Times

More than 300,000 acres of public land in the Methow Valley would be permanently off-limits to mining under legislation proposed Wednesday by U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.

The goal of the bill is to withdraw 340,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land on Flagg Mountain near Mazama from potential mineral leasing, effectively killing any effort to ever mine the mountain.

Murray said the bill is needed to protect the landscape that is the signature of a growing recreation economy in the Methow Valley near the picturesque town of Mazama, in Okanogan County. Endangered salmon in the Methow River struggling for survival also need protection from possible effects of mining upstream, Murray said.

“It is clear that the Methow Valley is a source of pride and is central to the region’s economic and environmental well-being,” Murray said in a prepared statement. “I am proud to work with the community to protect this environmentally sensitive area of the Methow River Valley, ensure critical federal investments in salmon recovery are protected, and continue to support the Valley’s thriving outdoor recreation economy.”

The Methow is too special to mine.

Maggie Coon, volunteer chairman of the board of the Methow Valley Citizens Council

Fellow Democrat Cantwell similarly said the waters of the Methow River, a tributary of the Upper Columbia, must be protected.

“Water issues in the Methow Valley are paramount. That is why copper mining that could impact rivers and salmon runs is something we can’t risk,” Cantwell, ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement.

Ever since Blue River Resources, based in Vancouver, B.C., filed for its permit for exploratory drilling on Flagg Mountain to assess copper deposits in 2014, the local community has been organizing to defeat any mine on the mountain, said Maggie Coon, volunteer chairman of the board of the Methow Valley Citizens Council.

“The Methow is too special to mine,” said Coon, a resident of the valley since the mid-1970s — when citizens successfully stopped a destination ski resort in the valley. That battle took 20 years.

Withdrawing the land for any mining development is the only way to gain long-term protection for the area, a recreational mecca, she noted. A campaign to stop the minelaunched in February, is supported by more than 100 local businesses.

From mountain biking to cross-country skiing, hiking and a growing second-home getaway destination, the valley’s economy is tied year-round to its scenic beauty, recreation and tourism.

Withdrawing lands for so-called mineral entry would not be a first for Washington, and it is not a rare practice. Former U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in 2011 put more than 1 million acres near the Grand Canyon off-limits to uranium mining by withdrawing the lands.

The proposed legislation is in a race with the company’s desire to drill. Michael Liu, district ranger for the Methow Valley Ranger District of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, said the company’s proposal could be approved for exploratory drilling as soon as Aug. 1.

The company seeks to use existing roads to access 14 locations to drill test borings about 1,000 feet deep and a few inches across to assess the possible value of its copper-mining claim. Officials at Blue River could not be reached Wednesday for comment on the legislation.

The lands also could be administratively withdrawn, another option the senators could seek if the legislative track bogs down.

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