A controversial proposal to open up part of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest to exploratory mining has been given final approval by the U.S. Forest Service.
Last Thursday, the USFS sent out a press release confirming the approval of exploratory mining operations proposed by Ascot USA, Inc., of Vancouver, B.C. That decision was handed down on Jan. 29 by Gar Abbas, district ranger in the Cowlitz Valley District of the GPNF. Since the project would occur on USFS land, Forest Service approval was required after a request for consideration was issued by the Bureau of Land Management.
The area approved for prospect mining is located about 12 miles northeast of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Ascot has stated their intention to search for gold, copper, molybdenum and other minerals on a mining claim in the upper Green River Valley at Goat Mountain.
The federal government is not without stake in the decision since it holds an even share of all subsurface rights with the claim owner. It is now up to the BLM to decide whether to issue the prospecting permits.
The USFS gave preliminary approval in August and then allowed 45 days for public comment and administrative review before formulating its final decision. According to the Cascade Forest Conservancy, there are more than 20 recreation and conservation groups that oppose the project. Those concerns ranged from soil compaction to increased traffic and degradation of the Green River watershed, which has been designated as both a Wild and Scenic River and a wild steelhead gene bank.
The Cowlitz Indian Tribe also raised a number of concerns with the proposal. Those concerns, as highlighted in the official decision letter, included:
• A need for completion of cultural and archaeological resource surveys and the potential for geotechnical borings to impacts on those resources.
• A need for known historic mining resources to be better characterized so that impacts can be avoided.
• The likely association of trails near the proposed area of effect with pre-contact period Indian trails tied to resource gathering.
• The presence of wild goats at Goat Mountain, which were and are an important element of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe cultural heritage.
• The importance and presence of berries and first foods as cultural resources and for which the Project Area would also have been utilized.
• The upper Green River fork of the Toutle River is considered a culturally significant landscape.
• The Washington State fish hatchery on the Green River and its importance for providing salmon and fish to Tribal members.
• Ensuring the tribe has a voice in identifying conditions for permits.
• The presence of two traditional cultural properties in the vicinity of the project area.
Abbas addressed many of the concerns raised over the course of the permitting process in his consent letter. In that letter, he noted that the Goat Mountain area has been “dominated by logging, recreation, mineral prospecting, and limited mineral development,” since shortly after Europeans settled the area. The first minerals were discovered in the late 1800s and the first claims were made in 1901. In the 1960s and 70s, the Duval Corporation worked the area, but field work stopped following the eruption of Mount St. Helens. Abbas noted that a recent uptick in copper and gold prices, along with improvements in mining technology, have rekindled interest in mining in the GPNF.
According to Abbas, the limited prospective mining activity that he signed off on allows for the drilling of approximately 63 small-diameter holes, measuring roughly 2-3 inches, at 21 drill sites. While 900 acres are included in the permit area, the USFS expects that only 0.23 acres of forest land will be drilled, and just 3.25 acres will be impacted at all since the sites are all located adjacent to or near existing roads and drill sites that were established by another exploration company in the early 1980s. However, Abbas was adamant that the permit approval does not mean that any actual mining is imminent.
“Throughout the process of analyzing this request from the BLM for Forest Service consent to the prospecting permits, it has become clear there is a great deal of concern that this decision somehow makes the potential for future approval of a new mine in this area easier or more likely. This consent decision is not for a mineral lease or mining; it is specific to issuance of prospecting permits that would convey rights to the holder to conduct exploration operations subject to terms and conditions of the prospecting permits,” wrote Abbas in his consent letter. “This activity is very similar to other investigative activities routinely authorized on National Forest System lands in support of endeavors such as volcanic activity research, groundwater investigations, road construction and maintenance, slope stabilization, river side channel restoration, quarry development or abandonment, historical or geological research, and historical or previous mineral exploration activity conducted on these same lands.”
The BLM has drafted a modified environmental assessment of the proposed mining activity in cooperation with the USFS. That assessment, and related information, can be viewed online at 1.usa.gov/1NFp1eT. A complete version of the Forest Service decision notice signed by Abbas can be viewed online at fs.usda.gov/project/?project=46996.
Additional information concerning the proposed mining activity can be obtained by calling Charlie Sharp, Environmental Coordinator, between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Mountain Standard Time, at 970-403-6174, or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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