By Gregory Scruggs
WINTHROP - Although the wooden boardwalk and turn-of-the-century saloons reflect Winthrop's Old West history as a mining town, residents these days are counting down to a year-end deadline that could see the government ban extraction there for 20 years.
Dec. 29 will mark the culmination of a battle by citizens of the Methow Valley, a constellation of small towns along a scenic river 116 miles (187 kilometres) northeast of Seattle.
For two years they have worked to convince the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) to withdraw 340,000 acres (137,600 hectares) of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest at the Methow Headwaters from future mining claims.
If successful, they hope Congress will pass a law that will permanently bar mining in the nearby hills.
"Wildlife, water, recreation, clean air, beautiful scenery, trees - that's what makes this valley what it is," said rancher and former forest firefighter John Doran.
"There's not enough gold on Earth that could repay for the damage we would do if we poisoned this valley."
Despite overwhelming local support, the 1,500 residents of Methow Valley's three towns and surrounding farmland see no guarantee during an administration that has reopened other parts of the West to mining.
The Methow River provides salmon habitat, irrigation and drinking water - all needs that sparked concern when Blue River Resources Ltd., a Canadian mining firm, proposed a copper mine on Flagg Mountain above the town of Mazama in 2014.
When residents realised the implications of an open-pit copper mine, including new roads for heavy trucks and leaving a toxic pool of arsenic-laced tailings in its wake, they formed a campaign group in 2016 to lobby against the project.
The group, called the Methow Headwaters, rallied local businesses, elected officials and outdoor recreation and hunting groups to protect Flagg Mountain and the surrounding area that is home to wolves, bears, mountain lions and wolverines.
In December 2016, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) - an agency within the DOI - announced a two-year moratorium on mining in the Methow River headwaters.
That met with local approval.
"An open pit mine would degrade a lot of the values that make this valley so attractive to people," said John Lindsey, an ecologist who runs a local business that restores grasslands.
"On a still night when the valley settles down, you can hardly hear a human sound and that's a rare thing in our world," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the Winthrop library.
The BLM also began a process for a 20-year exemption - which the DOI is considering. Supporters hope two decades will be long enough for Congress to pass the Methow Headwaters Protection Act, making the exemption permanent.
But if no decision is made by Dec. 29, then the public land above the Methow Valley would once again be open for anyone from a small prospector to a multinational corporation to stake a new claim.
'TAKE IT SOMEPLACE ELSE'
In November, federal officials held a town hall in Winthrop at the community centre. It was standing-room only as over 400 people attended - more than the town's population.
In a show of hands, every person indicated they supported the proposed withdrawal, and many spoke publicly about their fears in light of Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana, a copper mine that closed in 1982 and that remains highly toxic.
"Mining is a nasty, dirty business," said Sharon Canny, a Winthrop resident who grew up in Butte.
"Take it someplace else."
Others acknowledged the valley's mining history but distinguished between different types of mining.
"There are ways that are not as intrusive to the land," said Doran, the rancher.
He moved to the valley in 1957 and worked for local gold prospectors who he said had less of an impact.
"They don't really scar the land. What they extract, they don't process with arsenic and poisons."
"We're against a major company coming here and changing the whole infrastructure of the whole valley," he said.
Over two hours, residents clad in down jackets catalogued the importance of clean water, scenic vistas and untouched natural environments.
The Methow Headwaters estimates that visitors who come to fish, hunt, hike and cross-country ski contribute $150 million a year to the local economy and that over $100 million has been invested in salmon recovery, which the mine would threaten.
BLM officials acknowledged the near-unanimous support for a withdrawal, and told the audience that of the thousands of public comments submitted on the proposal, only two opposed the withdrawal.
"We have not heard a lot of people who are saying we really are against this withdrawal, but I am sure those discussions are happening somewhere," said Lenore Heppler, BLM mining chief for Washington and Oregon.
The BLM said Blue River Resources Ltd.'s claim had expired, and that just five mining claims remained active in the proposed withdrawal area.
The National Mining Association (NMA), an industry body, said it had not taken a position on this withdrawal, but pointed out that "new mining operations are already either restricted or banned on more than half of all federally-owned public lands".
"Given our nation's growing reliance on foreign minerals and the vast amount of federal lands already closed to mining operations, caution should be exercised when determining whether additional lands should be placed off limits," NMA spokeswoman Ashley Burke said in emailed comments.
Officials could not tell attendees whether the withdrawal proposal would be approved, saying that decision rests with the DOI. But, they added, Methow Valley's proposal looked strong.
"The ones that are more successful have strong local support, strong support from legislators, bipartisan support," Heppler said.
"We've seen what kind of local, bipartisan, and business support there is here. That message we are going to send up the chain."
Heppler compared the Methow Valley to land near Yellowstone National Park, which the government recommended for a 20-year mining withdrawal in September to preserve scenery, wildlife habitat, waterways and outdoor recreation that fuels tourism in nearby Montana towns.
While Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke – who will be leaving his post at the end of the year – has broadly promoted energy and mining activities on public lands, Lindsey hoped the Montana example offered a model for how the Methow Valley should be considered.
"Places like the Methow Valley should be protected," he said.
"As a country we should value places like the Methow Valley as much as we value the industry and their right to do what they need to do."