Susan Saul knows the Green River valley better than most.
In 1980, she led a group of about 20 people on a hike through the valley into the old-growth forest of Douglas fir and western red cedar just north of Mount St. Helens. Saul, then the co-chair of the Mount St. Helens Protective Association, was trying to rally support for conservation as timber companies left bare hillsides on the neighboring slopes and mining operations prospected the valley for copper ore.
She wanted people to see that the valley, with its wild river and ancient trees, had more value than the resources that could be extracted from its land. The hike she led on May 10, 1980, was part of her efforts to convince people that the land around Mount St. Helens should be set aside for conservation.
One week later, St. Helens erupted. Much of the Green River valley was decimated, like so much of the surrounding area, but some swaths of the valley — protected by high surrounding peaks — remained untouched.
The eruption springboarded efforts to protect Mount St. Helens. In 1982, thanks to the advocacy of Saul and others, the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument was created, the land set aside for perpetual preservation. The monument was a huge victory for Saul and everyone who had been working toward that goal since long before the eruption had thrust St. Helens into the national spotlight. It didn’t come without a sacrifice, however.
“There’s a bite out of the monument,” said Saul.
President Ronald Reagan heard mineral claims valued at $10 million existed near the mountain, and conservationists believed he would veto the monument altogether if the mining rights weren’t preserved. In order to get the mountain protected, they drew a boundary that narrowed at the top, carving out the land with the existing mineral claims. That’s where the Green River emerges from the monument, flowing north into the unprotected area before returning to protected lands to the west. For a few miles, it flows through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, leaving decisions about its use up to federal bureaucrats.
“It was a sacrifice to get the monument created,” Saul said. “They took it out in order to get Reagan to sign the bill.”
That’s how one of the last un-logged forests near Mount St. Helens, and a key part of the origin story of its preservation, came to miss out on the protective status that surrounds much of the mountain. Now, more than 35 years after the creation of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Saul fears that omission could have serious consequences.
On Dec. 3, the Bureau of Land Management announced that it would allow a Canadian mining company to begin exploratory drilling on 900 acres in the Green River valley, bounded to the south and west by the monument. The company, Ascot Resources, believes the valley may be rich in copper, and the prospecting operation will allow them to find out. Ascot’s proposal calls for drilling 63 boreholes of 2 to 3 inches in diameter from 23 drill pads on the site. The BLM determined that exploratory drilling would not have a significant effect on the environment, giving Ascot the go-ahead to start looking for copper.
While conservationists cringe, local officials are decidedly less unsettled by the development. In economically hard-hit Lewis and Skamania counties, the prospect of a mine means the potential for jobs and more money for the cash-strapped county coffers. With rural counties struggling to make ends meet amid shrinking revenue — especially given the loss of timber dollars — and rising costs and state-mandated expenditures, officials are hard-pressed to turn their noses up at any company looking to operate in the region.
“Hopefully they’ll let (Ascot) proceed,” said Lewis County commissioner-elect Gary Stamper, who has long followed the potential mine just south of his district (Stamper has stepped down for the final month of his first term so he can begin collecting his school pension, before returning to office for his second term in January). “If they get to the point where they do some mining, it will for sure be an economic provider.”
Commissioner Edna Fund is also eager to see if Ascot is able to turn up any copper.
“I’d like to have the process done, so we know what we’re dealing with,” she said. “The drilling will give us information that we don’t have right now.”
Both commissioners stressed that they also want to see the environment protected, and they won’t favor any mining plan that would decimate the forest or the waterway. They trust the feds — if copper is found — to make that eventual decision with care.
“I feel pretty confident that the results that we get will be truly factual,” said Fund. “We don’t want anything to damage the environment. I’d like to see what is the current way of getting it done, and still being environmentally sensitive.”
According to the BLM, that’s just the sort of consideration they plan to make. For now, they’ve only been tasked with deciding if the exploratory phase — not an actual mining operation — will harm the environment.
“The prospecting permits don’t grant the company the right to do whatever they want,” said BLM public affairs staffer Michael Campbell. “That is not the decision that’s being made today. That’s the decision that’s many years down the road. … We can’t just let a company go out and mine for whatever they want, wherever they want.”
Even getting to the exploratory phase has been a years-long battle, one that has played out among mountains of paperwork and court cases for more than a decade. According to a timeline provided by the Cascade Forest Conservancy — one of the lead opponents of the project — the BLM in 2008 denied the lease application of the company that held the mining rights prior to Ascot, following a strong show of public opposition.
After Ascot purchased the rights, though, it was able to conduct exploratory drilling in 2010, before the Conservancy stepped in to demand a full environmental review before prospecting could begin. That forced Ascot to amend its permit application, which was approved by USFS and the BLM in 2012. The Conservancy appealed that decision, and in 2014 a judge ruled that the agencies’ prospecting permits were illegal.
That sent Ascot back to the drawing board on a new permit application, which has been working its way through the bureaucracy since 2015. Earlier this year, the Forest Service opted to give BLM the authorization to approve the project, a decision the agency has now signed off on.
“The decision comes after years of intensive environmental review, the results of which confirm the prospecting activities will have no significant impact on the environment,” Ascot said in a statement praising the BLM’s approval.
An Ascot spokeswoman did not respond to multiple requests to speak on the record.
The Ascot statement also says that its proposal “has the support of local residents and elected officials throughout the region,” which paints an incomplete picture at best.
Locally, the project is opposed by groups of mountain bikers, fishermen, birders, horseback riders and paddlers — all part of a coalition of about 30 groups listed on the Cascade Forest Conservancy’s website. That opposition also includes regional outdoors clubs, national conservation groups and outdoor industry manufacturers.
“The Green River is a really important resource for spawning habitat downstream,” said Steve Jones, conservation chairman of the Clark-Skamania Flyfishers. “The basic concern is that a mine in this area would jeopardize the water source. (The mine would be) on an uphill slope that all drains toward the Green. There’s not a way to develop that area that doesn’t pollute the Green.”
Jones noted that the Green River feeds into the Toutle River, which then empties into the Cowlitz — all of which are hotbeds for Southwest Washington anglers.
“What’s upstream comes downstream,” he said.
That concern led the city of Kelso, which pulls its drinking water from the Cowlitz River, to pass a resolution in 2016 opposing the proposal. Longview did the same in 2008.
According to the Cascade Forest Conservancy, more than 50,000 people have registered public comment opposing the development in its various stages over the years. On the federal level, Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray have consistently voiced their objection to the drilling.
“Opening the door to drilling at the edge of Mount St. Helens is a short-sighted decision that undervalues the important benefits these public spaces offer both to our booming recreation economy and to families who come from near and far to enjoy their beauty,” Cantwell said in a statement.
Murray called the BLM’s sign-off the “wrong decision,” adding: “Washingtonians know the immeasurable value of natural treasures like Mount St. Helens and the Green River — as well as the inherent danger of exposing them to the harmful effects of mining — and I will not stop working to ensure this area is protected for future generations.”
Democrats aren’t the only ones with qualms about the proposal. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, sent a statement to The Chronicle expressing her concern.
“This proposal has faced significant opposition and tens of thousands of public comments voicing concern over its impacts over the years,” she said. “Additionally, residents of our region have expressed their fears with me of how it might limit their access to our treasured mountain and potentially damage its beauty and resources. Ascot Inc. faces a difficult challenge in convincing the permitting agencies that a mine on Mt. St. Helens won’t significantly impact those who recreate on this monument, and our way of life. For these reasons, I have real concerns with this project and will continue to closely monitor it while it remains in the legal process.”
While Ascot has held the mining rights near the Green River since 2010, another group is pointing out its link to the land goes back much longer.
“The entire Mount St. Helens area is a very important traditional cultural location for the tribe,” said Cowlitz Tribal Chairman Bill Iyall. “The tribe has used that area for 10,000 years. … We are opposed to any kind of mining in the Monument area.”
Iyall said the tribe is concerned that the proposal could devastate the environment and limit recreation in the area, and it’s going to seek out every avenue it can to block it from moving forward.
The widespread opposition is due to a host of concerns, with both the exploratory drilling phase and what it could mean for the future. The Ascot proposal would involve reactivating old roads to bring heavy equipment into the area. According to Saul, the valley is often used by hikers, mountain bikers, horseback riders and hunters.
“It’s got quite a lot of diverse recreational interests that would be affected by this proposal,” she said.
When another company conducted exploratory drilling nearby in the 1970s, she said, campers heard the noise all night from as far as three miles away. The fluids used to lubricate those drills, she added, have the potential to spill into the river or its tributaries.
Matt Little, the executive director of the Cascade Forest Conservancy, said the prospecting will have a drastic impact on the valley.
“You’ll have 24/7 truck traffic and nonstop noise,” he said. “That valley’s pretty steep and beautiful. It’s pristine. … We’re talking about solitude and places to get away which would be completely ruined. They’re drilling within 100 feet of the river and its tributaries, and they use some pretty nasty chemicals in the drilling itself.”
What really has opponents scared, though, is what will happen if copper is found. The feds and Ascot have stressed that the current decision only allows them to to search for minerals. Any mine proposal would be subject to its own environmental review. But many have a hard time believing the government would allow Ascot to look for copper if it had no intention of allowing it to extract the resource.
“To say that this couldn’t lead there is not true at all,” Jones said. “Once a claim is actually proven, it is very hard to stop mine development.”
Allowing Ascot to look for copper, Saul added, will make it very difficult to prohibit mining if the resource is found.
“The proponents claim, ‘We’re only drilling these little drill holes that are the size of a Campbell’s Soup can,’” she said. “This is a slippery slope opening up the future of an open pit mine.”
That possibility, of an open pit mine gouged out of the mountainside, is a frightening prospect for advocates who want to keep the valley as it is. Photos from federal permitting documents show the exploration site spanning a forest-covered slope, edging down to where the Green River cuts through the valley.
Little said the most likely way to extract a resource like copper in an area like that would be an open pit mine, leaving the landscape barren. More concerning is that a mine of that nature could store the toxic sludge left over from the withdrawal process in a tailings pond, which would be held back by an earthen dam. Breaches at other tailings ponds have caused numerous environmental disasters around the world.
“The crazy part of this decision is that they are basically giving a green light for a project like this in a very active earthquake zone in the shadow of a volcano,” Little said. “Those toxic lakes will surely fail over time.”
According to the BLM’s Campbell, it’s premature to raise alarms about an open pit mine.
“It’s too early to say,” he said. “There’s different ways which you can get at resources. It’s ultimately going to depend on what they find … It’s really going to depend on what the company comes back to us with as to even whether we’ll allow them to move forward with a plan of operations.”
Aside from the environmental concerns, the valley’s defenders say conservation is worth pursuing for its own sake, whether or not there’s high-value copper in the area or extraction poses a threat. Many point to the fact that some of the land in the drilling zone was obtained through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which carries the explicit purpose of outdoor recreation.
“The intent of the land was for public enjoyment, but also for protection of the environment,” said Iyall, the Cowlitz Tribe chairman. “Originally, it was set aside for that. … The potential for the mining that might come about there and the history that always goes along with mining operations — that history has always been damaging to the environment. This is an important recreational property that would be lost to the public and to the wildlife.”
Little echoed that argument.
“The lands were acquired to protect conservation values and for backcountry recreation,” he said. “We know for certain that a full-scale mine would be counter to those purposes, and even the exploratory stages that were just permitted would violate that.”
Jones, who represents the fly fishing group, argued that the economic value of the outdoor recreation in the valley likely already outweighs what would be gained with a mine.
Earlier this year, Forest Service district ranger Gar Abbas told The Chronicle that the exploratory drilling phase would represent about 12 jobs, many of which would be workers already on the Ascot payroll, not locals. Ascot has avoided giving job estimates for either the prospecting phase or a mine.
Still, the prospect of large-scale employment just south of East Lewis County — where the decline of the timber industry has left towns economically hard-hit — remains an enticing prospect, even if details are vague.
“It would definitely be an opportunity for good, high-paying jobs,” said Stamper, the former and future East County commissioner. “That would definitely be a real boom.”
Though the mine itself is in Skamania County, the company’s operations would have to funnel through Randle to get into the National Forest. Stamper said that could bring a ripple effect to local hardware stores, rental properties and other businesses.
That optimism is what Little and drilling opponents are trying to counter. He acknowledged the jobs argument is a strong one in rural communities, saying he was focused on convincing commissioners in Lewis and Skamania Counties that a mine will not be the economic provider it claims to be.
“Don’t chase after ghost jobs,” he said.
The decision announced by the BLM earlier this month is now subject to a 30-day appeal period. Little said the Conservancy and its allies are looking at a number of pathways to stall the drilling.
One of those possibilities is a bill in Congress to remove the land from mineral development. A similar move to protect the Methow Valley in North Central Washington has recently picked up momentum. Given its success fighting past development in court, the Conservancy could pursue that option as well.
“You pretty much have a legal route and a political route,” Little said. “We will be pursuing both routes.”
Nearly 40 years after she first led hikers into the Green River valley to promote its protection, Saul is still speaking up for the area’s conservation.
“That hike was part of building an advocacy base for the Green River,” she said. “One of the things we realized we needed to do was get more people up here.”
Today, that base of support seems to be in place. Conservationists, sportsmen, tribal leaders and politicians have all piped up to defend the valley. Whether those voices will outweigh the economic hopes of others in the region, or a company’s promise of development, remains to be seen.