Sen. Cantwell urges Forest Service to say no to Mount St. Helens drilling

By Dameon Pesanti, Columbian staff writer

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U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is opposed to exploratory drilling near Mount St. Helens and she’s urging the U.S. Forest Service to deny a request for such activity.

On Monday, Cantwell, the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, sent a letter to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell explaining her opposition to drilling and hardrock mining on lands purchased for conservation with cash from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. She argued that kind of development would likely interfere with the recreational and conservation purposes behind the purchase.

Ascot Resources wants to search for copper, silver, gold and other minerals by drilling 63 holes at 23 different sites at Goat Mountain, just north of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument boundary near the headwaters of the Green River.

According to a news release from Cantwell’s office, the senator described hardrock mining and exploratory drilling, on lands purchased for conservation and recreation purposes, as “not sound public policy.”

“Given the incompatibility of this project with the primary purposes for which the lands were acquired and the broader negative (Land and Water Conservation Funds) implications, I respectfully request that you refrain from providing consent for prospecting permits for the Goat Mountain Project,” Cantwell wrote.

Earlier this month, Cantwell also questioned Tidwell in person during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, saying she didn’t understand how exploratory drilling and conservation lands can coexist. He responded by saying acquired lands are managed by the rules of the forest the land becomes a part of, but added that he shared her concern.

“It’s one of the things I want to look at how we can avoid these problems from happening in the future,” Tidwell said.

“But once those lands are acquired, it’s part of the national forest, and if they’re open for mining and there’s a mining claim, then that proponent has an ability to propose an operation.”

The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management released a modified environmental assessment for the Ascot Resources Goat Mountain exploratory drilling permit application in January and once again in February. Two 30-day public comment periods were opened, the latest of which closed on March 19.

On Thursday, BLM spokesman Michael Campbell said the agencies received about 2,800 comments on the project during the combined comment periods.

The original assessment was approved by both the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management in 2012, but it was declared inadequate in 2012 by U.S. District Court in Oregon. Drilling never took place.

Number of factors

Campbell said several factors play into why the project is being considered on lands purchased with conservation fund dollars.

He said Congress knew there were mineral claims and mineral interests near the mountain when they passed the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument Act in 1982. So the Congress intentionally created the monument boundary to exclude those areas.

“(It) didn’t create buffer zones or restrictions on adjacent uses — other than uses that are specifically spelled out in the surface management uses, which doesn’t prohibit mineral exploration,” he said. “Because Congress specifically drew this area out, it was always understood that this had the potential for mineral development.”

The mineral rights in the 217 acres of land at Goat Mountain were originally patented at the time of the monument’s creation by the Duval Corporation. The rights traded hands a few times before Ascot purchased them.

As it currently stands, half of the minerals underground belong to Ascot; the other half belongs to the U.S. government.

“Imagine every other grain of sand is what we’re having to discuss,” Campbell said. “Part of what we’re looking at is whether or not it’s in the public’s interests to get at that 50 percent of the public’s piece and allow the applicant to get at the other 50 percent to determine if there’s a viable state below.”

Ascot purchased the mineral rights before the Forest Service acquired 167 acres of the surface lands with Conservation Fund dollars. According to Campbell, even after the purchase was made with the Conservation Fund, there were no restrictions placed on the mineral rights.

Also, the lands in question are managed as part of the Gifford Pinchot Land and Resource Management Plan, which doesn’t prohibit mineral exploration, Campbell said.