Potential copper mine threatens Mazama, a dryside recreation destination

Potential copper mine threatens Mazama, a dryside recreation destination

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A Canadian company hopes to mine copper on Flagg Mountain, the rock face just left of center in the photo of the upper Methow Valley. Photo by Matt Firth.
A Canadian company hopes to mine copper on Flagg Mountain, the rock face just left of center in the photo of the upper Methow Valley. Photo by Matt Firth.

By Nick Belcaster

Around pitch two of the classic Prime Rib of Goat climb, often touted as one of the longest sport routes in the U.S., the light fades and the yellow bulbs of the Mazama Store flick on in the valley below.

The rock is still warm. Everything is calm and quiet from this vantage. But in the valley below, mining drills clunk into gear and truck engines groan to life – at least in the imaginations of some residents. There’s copper behind these walls. And after transforming itself from a mining outpost to a recreation destination, Mazama could once again host a mining operation.

Blue River Resources, a Canadian mining company headquartered in Vancouver, B.C., applied for permits to explore the earth above the little Highway 20 hamlet in April 2014. They’re looking to see if the copper behind the rock warrants an open pit mine.

The possibility of a mine on Flagg Mountain, 2 miles above Mazama, is still a long way off, but the community has hit the ground running in order to stop it.

Blue River Resources could not be reached for comment, but the plan they submitted to the U.S. Forest Service in August 2013 outlines 15 exploratory bore holes to be drilled to a depth of up to 980 feet. A support system of drills on sleds, bulldozers and water tank trucks would be on Flagg Mountain for approximately four months, and could operate for 24 hours a day. The infrastructure required to actually mine the copper would likely impact 6 square miles of land in the narrow valley, according to one group that’s fighting the proposal.

The company is waiting on a permit from the U.S. Forest Service. The General Mining Act of 1872 gives U.S. citizens the right to make a claim on federal lands that they believe hold precious minerals. As a Canadian company, Blue River Resources functions as the operator of the claim, while the owner is listed as Mazama Minerals Inc., based out of Henderson, Nevada.

The U.S. Forest Service has conducted environmental assessments and heard public comment in preparation for issuing a decision on the permit, but has been held up since 2013 by bad fire years in the Methow Valley. Its decision is slated to come down later this summer.

Recreation in Mazama is a big deal. Fly fishers scan the Methow River for rising trout, climbers head to Washington Pass for classic climbing objectives or take to the near-town cliffs. Hikers out for the day or passing by on a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail wind their way past the valley. In the winter, skiers flock to the valley for world-class, cross-country skiing. To these folks, a copper mine above Mazama is a direct threat to the activities they hold dear.

Methow Valley locals have formed conservation groups to rally against the drilling, one of the largest being the Methow Headwaters Campaign. The group fears that a mine will come with years of heavy truck traffic, visual impacts, wildlife disruption, and spills that affect water quality. The campaign’s outreach coordinator, Hannah Dewey, said the campaign has taken off in the last six months, after they announced a petition against the mine. The petition carried the signatures of 135 local business owners, and was sent to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service.

The letter caught the eye of state representatives, and earlier this year U.S. Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell introduced the “Methow Headwaters Protection Act of 2016” to Congress. Aiming to accomplish a “mineral withdrawal” of approximately 340,079 acres of federal land surrounding Mazama, the legislation would effectively take new mineral claims off the table, but would not necessarily stop Blue River.

If the mineral withdrawal is successful, the Bureau of Land Management will require Blue River to demonstrate the existence of a valuable mineral resource in order to mine, something the company aims to achieve with the exploratory drilling.

This isn’t the first time industry has probed the area in search of copper. Nestled beneath Flagg Mountain sits Goat’s Beard Mountain Supplies, and manager CB Thomas has watched the issue from the onset.

“I trust the people who have lived here a long time. This is the fifth or so time bore holes have been drilled looking for copper, and I don’t think they’re going to find anything they don’t already know,” Thomas said. Even so, Thomas said he believes many in the valley have reluctantly accepted that the holes will be drilled this fall.

Like Thomas, many in the valley not only enjoy the recreational bounty of Mazama, but make their living from the recreation industry as well. Josh Cole owns North Cascades Mountain Guides, a rock and ski guiding company that operates in the Methow area and beyond. Cole describes the dependence on recreation dollars as a gradient running down the valley, with Mazama being mostly dependent on recreation, Twisp less so, and so on down the river.

A 2015 study on the economic impact of Methow Valley’s trail system on the local economy found that nearly $6.7 million is injected into the community through trail users annually, and the trails play directly into local real estate purchasing decisions.

“If you think about mining as the historical economic underpinning in the upper part of the valley, in the early part of this century recreation has become that underpinning,” Cole said.

Many in the valley wonder why, when there is near unanimous community support for denying the permit, the Forest Service has not taken larger steps in moving the mineral withdrawal forward.

Many in the valley wonder why, when there is near unanimous community support for denying the permit, the Forest Service has not taken larger steps in moving the mineral withdrawal forward.

In many ways, however, the agency’s hands are tied: “To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations,” reads the Forest Service’s mission statement. The words hang above Methow Valley district ranger Michael Liu’s desk. He said to note the key word, productivity. The Forest Service must manage all uses of federal land, even when those uses oppose one another.

“When I look at those words, and the potential effects of a mine, they do seem a little at odds with each other,” Liu said.

Liu has worked for the Forest Service for more than 30 years and has lived in the valley for eight. He explained that while many associate the Forest Service with hiking and trails, the agency is beholden to laws such as the 1872 mining law and has to issue permits when they qualify. Liu said the Forest Service will delay its decision until he can meet with representatives of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, who have expressed concerns over the potential mining plans.

Should the Forest Service issue the permit for drilling, however, and the company finds sufficient copper in the ground, Blue River’s likely next step will be to apply for a mining permit, which would require a broad environmental review, Liu said.

Many in the community see a struggle ahead and hope that the combination of mineral withdrawal and public outcry will be enough to prevent something they see as incongruous to the landscape they call home.

Back on the wall, we start setting up our rappel. The sun tilts back over Washington Pass, and the wind blows east down valley with the Methow River. The rock glows orange as the sun sets. I wonder what stands to be lost in an area that has rebuilt itself on enjoyment of the outdoors, where the local economy hinges on tourism dollars, and recreation acts as the glue that holds together this unincorporated
community.

Nick Belcaster is a Bellingham writer who traverses the Pacific Northwest on rack, rope, skins and boot tread. An ice axe in one hand and a fly rod in the other.