Maggie Coon had gone to battle for the Methow Valley before. Back in the 1970s, when a Colorado corporation tried to build a ski resort in the middle of this sparsely populated wonderland of towering peaks and green riverbanks, she and other valley residents galvanized the necessary support to stop it.
But this time was different. This time, the threat — an open pit copper mine — held a strong legal position. An archaic mining law from 1872 stipulates that unless Congress says otherwise, anyone can go into public lands that are open to mining exploration and stake a claim.
In May 2014, Coon learned that a Canadian mining company had done just that.
Tucked along the eastern slope of the Cascade Mountains, 25 miles south of the Canadian border in Washington state, the Methow Valley is known for clean, clear, cold water that acts as the foundation for an agricultural and recreation-based economy — as well as salmon runs that are key to protecting the Columbia Basin’s endangered salmon. The beauty of the place brings nearly a million visitors a year. An open pit copper mine would destroy all of this.
Through former Earthjustice board member Bill Pope, Coon and a small group reached out to Earthjustice attorney Todd True. Initially, the group asked him about going to court to challenge the mining company’s potential drilling permit. True explained that because of the way the mining law works, challenging the permit likely wouldn’t stop the mine. Based on Earthjustice’s experience in other mining fights, he thought of a better way to protect the Methow Valley permanently. And it didn’t involve going to court.
Meanwhile Coon and others began to learn about something called a “mineral withdrawal.” The group discussed it with True as a potential goal for the campaign.
Protecting the valley through a mineral withdrawal would make it a no-go area for large-scale mining. However, the process of obtaining a mineral withdrawal is complex, and would require a strategic and sustained effort, True explained.
True and Earthjustice staff outlined the process, which could take two different paths. One path, which would protect the land at the headwaters of the Methow River for 20 years, would require authorization by the Secretary of the Interior. The other path, which would make the land off-limits permanently, would require an act of Congress.
In order to secure the political support necessary to pursue either course to mineral withdrawal, Coon and others began building a strong coalition of local businesses, community members, civic leaders and organizations. They called themselves the Methow Headwaters Campaign.
It didn’t take long to build broad support for the campaign across Methow Valley.
“It was hard to find someone to support mining in the valley, no matter what you did for a living,” says Sam Lucy, who owns Bluebird Grain Farms near the proposed mine site. “We irrigate with water from the mountains, I live here for the purity of the place. I have family here. We run an organic grain operation, all of which I would have disbanded or moved if the mine had gone in.”
While there was strong support for protecting the Methow Valley in the local community, mineral withdrawal couldn’t be achieved without support from officials in Washington, D.C. The campaign got to work building relationships within the federal agencies and across Capitol Hill. In May 2016, Senator Patty Murray took a critical first step by introducing legislation to withdraw the Methow Headwaters from mining. This initial step led to a much-needed short-term victory.
With days left in the Obama administration, the Bureau of Land Management issued a “notice of segregation” that closed more than 340,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land in the upper Methow Valley to new mineral exploration and mining for the next two years. This bought the campaign more time to achieve its longer-term goal.
Then Donald Trump took office and Ryan Zinke became Secretary of the Interior.
“The election was a major political hiccup,” says True. “Instead of having an agency that was sympathetic to this withdrawal, we had one that wasn’t.”
Nevertheless, the campaign continued undeterred, spending the next two years traveling back and forth to D.C. to tell their story to the new administration.
Kevin Van Bueren, who runs North Cascades Fly Fishing and works as a Nordic ski instructor in the Methow Valley, remembers walking the long, antiseptic halls of the Department of the Interior to sit down with Joe Balash, former Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management. Despite the fact that Balash and others often seemed to favor resource extractive interests, Van Bueren felt that they listened to his point of view and engaged with him on the unique qualities of the Methow Valley.
“The fact that nearly every business in the valley signed up to be on the campaign, with no opposition, kept raising eyebrows in D.C.,” Van Bueren says. “They’d never really seen that.”
Then, at the end of 2018, the government shut down. Shortly after, Secretary Zinke resigned without signing the mineral withdrawal, even though both the Forest Service and the BLM had recommended it. The notice of segregation expired, and the Methow Valley was once again vulnerable to mining.
Fortunately, the campaign had built strong relationships with the three people in Congress who represent the Methow Valley. All three — Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, both Democrats, and Representative Dan Newhouse, a Republican — supported a legislative mineral withdrawal.
“To achieve our very ambitious goal, we knew we had to build a broad coalition because we had a very big ask during a very challenging time,” says Soo Ing-Moody, the mayor of Twisp, a town that calls itself the heart of the Methow Valley, and ranks as its largest municipality with 970 people.
In January 2019, a public lands package — containing more than 120 public lands, resources, sportsmen, conservation, and water management bills — was introduced by Senators Cantwell and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). Sen. Cantwell pushed to ensure that the Methow Valley mineral withdrawal was included.
“Senator Cantwell played a critical role,” True says. “She’s the one who was in a position to make sure that little paragraph about the Methow got into the big public lands bill and stayed there.”
President Trump signed the public lands package, known as the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, into law in March, and the Methow headwaters withdrawal at 340,079 acres now ranks among the largest permanent mineral withdrawals in the continental United States.
Looking back at the five-year process, Coon says: “Throughout this campaign to protect the Methow Valley, Earthjustice and Todd were critical partners, not just by helping us understand the law but also by providing great strategic advice and insights at so many key points.”
“When this thing came up it sent shockwaves. We were being threatened from something there’s no recourse from,” says Brian Charlton, who has managed Sun Mountain Lodge, Methow Valley’s largest resort, for 31 years. “It was just this groundswell in the valley. We couldn’t afford to have this happen and spoil the beauty of what we have. People here are extremely tough and resilient. This valley is blessed with people who really love being here and want to protect it and share it.”
In April 2019, hundreds of people turned out to Winthrop Barn, the Methow Valley’s largest gathering place, to celebrate the hard-fought victory.
“People were practically hanging from the rafters,” Coon remembers. “As the campaign progressed the crowds got larger and larger. This campaign truly gained momentum over the course of five years.”
Ing-Moody recalled her speech to the assembled crowd that day: “I told them that protecting the headwaters was our second victory. Our first victory was coming together as a community. That was no small undertaking.”