The British Columbia government has announced the surrender of mining rights at the headwaters of the Skagit River, following yearslong controversy over protection of one of the region’s premier salmon rivers.
Under an agreement announced Wednesday by the office of the B.C. premier, Imperial Metals will return to the province of B.C. all of its mining and related rights within a more than 14,000-acre area for a 24 million Canadian dollar ($19.1 million) buyout.
The area is within the Silverdaisy watershed, surrounded by Skagit Valley Provincial Park and E.C. Manning Provincial Park.
The agreement is intended to ensure the preservation and protection of natural and cultural resources as well as recreational opportunities within the headwaters of the Skagit River.
The buyout of the mining rights is to be paid for with, in Canadian dollars, $7 million from the Province of B.C., $5 million from the Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission; $5 million from the Nature Conservancy of Canada, and $7 million from the state of Washington.
The contribution from Washington is in the governor’s proposed supplemental budget, and will have to be approved by the Legislature.
The most recent controversy over logging and possible mining stretches back to 2018. Former Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, in a rare step, wrote British Columbia Premier John Horgan then of her “grave concern,” admonishing his government for not consulting with the city on a B.C. logging project underway 125 miles away from Seattle at the headwaters of the Skagit River, the region’s chief salmon producer for Puget Sound.
Durkan argued the logging undercut the spirit of a decades-old treaty between the two governments protecting the land and river, and was endangering vulnerable fish populations, including Chinook salmon and steelhead.
Much of the Skagit’s headwaters are protected by Canadian parks. But, to preserve historic mining rights, the B.C. government had set aside a forested area the size of Manhattan that’s surrounded by parkland. It’s known now as the “donut hole.”
Crews in the summer of 2018 began to fell trees inside the donut hole at the behest of B.C.’s government. Conservationists who once fought to keep Seattle from flooding the area for a higher Ross Dam were worried, despite winning that battle, that B.C. would allow the valley to be hollowed at its center.
Logging could threaten Ross Lake bull trout and disrupt possible grizzly-bear recovery efforts. And logging and road construction could open the door further to mining, potentially a grave threat to Puget Sound salmon.
The potential for industrial activity in the region has historically been strongly opposed by Indigenous communities and local and international environmental groups. In 2019, B. C. responded to calls to stop forestry operations in the Silverdaisy area by halting all timber sale licenses on the land.
The agreement announced Wednesday takes protection a step further with the retirement of the mining rights. “This milestone also reflects on the important relationship we have with our neighbors in Washington state,” Horgan said in a statement.
The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community celebrated the news, which the tribe and a transboundary coalition of mining opponents had been working toward for years.
“This is an extraordinary conservation success that will benefit current and future generations of Coast Salish People, and we express our gratitude to all our conservation partners who advocated with us to protect our salmon and ecosystem forever,” Swinomish tribal chairman Steve Edwards said in a statement.
The Skagit Environment Endowment Commission, a binational group charged with protecting the Upper Skagit, was also a signer on the agreement. The commission was established in 1984 under an agreement between the province and Seattle, in effect until 2064, to protect the Upper Skagit watershed.
The commission consists of 16 appointees, half from each side of the border.
Leo Bodensteiner, U.S. co-chair for the commission, added, “Our collective stewardship of the Upper Skagit transcends geographical boundaries as this watershed provides a critical corridor for salmon, steelhead, and bull trout, which have protected status on both sides of the border.”
Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell also praised the agreement, saying in a statement “ … on behalf of the City of Seattle and former Mayor Durkan, I want to thank Premier Horgan for honoring our shared commitment … to jointly protect the environmental integrity of the headwaters of the Skagit River.”
Information from The Seattle Times archive was included in this report.