The Forest Service decision could allow drilling later this year in the upper Green River Valley if the federal Bureau of Land Management approves permits for the work.

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The U.S. Forest Service signed off on exploration for copper, gold and other minerals on 900 federal acres that lie just outside the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument in Southwest Washington.

The decision announced Thursday could allow Ascot USA to start drilling later this year in the upper Green River Valley if the federal Bureau of Land Management approves permits for the work.

Ascot first proposed exploration in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest more than a half-decade ago some 12 miles northeast of Mount St. Helens. That request has been strongly opposed by conservation groups, which in 2012 filed a federal lawsuit to block initial Forest Service approval of two Ascot prospecting applications. In a 2014 decision, a U.S. District Court judge found flaws in an environmental review, which the Forest Service then was asked to address.

The proposal also has drawn scrutiny from Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who in 2016 wrote the Forest Service to object. In a letter to the then Forest Service chief, she said the federal acreage that drew interest from Ascot was purchased with money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund and should be closed to prospecting.

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Forest Service officials say the consent does not authorize mining, only the drilling of up to 63 roadside holes — each around 2 to 3 inches in diameter.

“There is not currently a proposal to develop a new mine in this location, and any potential future proposal would be subject to an entire new and comprehensive environmental analysis and decision process,” wrote Gar Abbas, the Cowlitz Valley district ranger, in a draft decision released last year.

Jody Weil, a Portland-based spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management, expects the agency will make a decision on the work permits in the coming weeks.

Opponents of exploration say they will continue to try to block the prospecting.

“Tens of thousands of people have expressed opposition to this proposal due to its impacts on recreation, clean water and native fish, in and around one of our most treasured national monuments,” said Matt Little, executive director of the nonprofit Cascade Forest Conservancy. “Allowing mining activities in a pristine river valley alongside an active volcano is simply ludicrous. We will do all we can to stop it.”