SEATTLE (AP) — A large swath of federal land in Washington’s Methow Valley would be protected from future mining for 20 years under a proposal recommended by the U.S. Forest Service.
The proposal would make about 340,000 acres (121 hectares) of forest lands in Okanogan County off-limits to new mining and mineral development for two decades while Congress considers legislation to permanently protect that area.
The agency on Friday recommended what’s called a 20-year mineral withdrawal to protect the value of ecological and recreational resources of the Methow Valley — an outdoor destination that attracts nearly a million visitors annually who hunt, fish, bike, ski and hike.
Washington’s Democratic U.S. Senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, introduced legislation in 2016 and again last year to permanently protect the land from mining.
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The senators and U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican, applauded the Forest Service’s recommendation in a statement Friday that highlighted the value of the Methow headwaters to recreation, tourism and salmon and wildlife recovery.
The Forest Service’s environmental review and recommendation now goes to the Bureau of Land Management. That agency will hold a public hearing and make a recommendation to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior for a final decision.
In 2016, the Forest Service began working on a process to withdraw the land for two years while it studied the environmental impacts of the proposal.
That move came after a Canadian company proposed exploring for copper deposits near Mazama, about 175 miles (282 kilometers) east of Seattle. Blue River Resources filed a permit in 2014 to drill up to 15 exploratory holes in and around Flagg Mountain near Mazama to explore for copper deposits.
Griffin Jones, president and CEO of Blue River Resources, did not return a message left last week seeking comment.
There are no pending applications for mineral withdrawal in that area, Forest Service spokeswoman Holly Krake said.
The area has a rich mining history with about 34 prospects or projects documented as active prior to the 1940s, according to the Forest Service. There are five legal mining claims in the proposed area, but no mining development has occurred since the 1940s.
Maggie Coon, with the Methow Headwaters Campaign to protect the area from industrial-scale mining, said the region’s economy has evolved over the years to be based on recreation, tourism, local agriculture and ranching, and “there’s a very clear understanding that an industrial scale open pit mine is not compatible with the economy or resource-based activity.”
Under the proposal, known as a “withdrawal,” no new mining claims may be located and no mineral leasing is allowed.
The American Mining Rights Association sent a letter last fall opposing the proposal, which it called stunning because it would prevent filing mining claims on public lands that are supposed to remain open for mineral entry by law.